Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Henry Morton Stanley’s Human Tooth Necklace: Guest Post by Kristin Hussey, Hunterian Museum, London

Kristin Hussey--Assistant Curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons with responsibility for the Odontological Collection--has kindly agreed to write a series of guest posts for Morbid Anatomy about some of the most curious objects in her collection.

The fifth post from that series follows; you can view all posts in this series by clicking here.
Henry Morton Stanley’s human tooth necklace and his infamous last African Expedition (1886-1889)
Of all the museum objects related to teeth, human tooth necklaces hold an enduring fascination. The Odontological Collection contains one such necklace associated with one of the most infamous colonial explorers, Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904). Stanley was a Welsh-born journalist who is remembered as a controversial figure for his expedition to find Scottish explorer David Livingstone and his role in the exploitation of the Congo, on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. In 1886, Stanley set out on what was to be his last African expedition from which he returned with the human tooth necklace and the idea for his book In Darkest Africa.

The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition was organised in 1886 with Stanley at its head to rescue Eduard Schnitzer (known as Emin Pasha), the Governor of the Egyptian Province of Equatoria who was thought to be trapped by the Mahdist uprising. The trip took three years and was met by constant set back and controversy. While Stanley travelled ahead with the ‘Advance Column’ (Figure 1), a large proportion of the expedition was left behind to form a part of the ‘Rear Column’ which dissolved into violence, desertion and illness. Emin Pasha was eventually located and reluctantly brought to the East Coast city of Bagamoyo in 1889. Inspired by his journey, Stanley wrote In Darkest Africa (1890). Upon his return to England, Stanley and the surviving members of the Expedition initially received acclaim, although they later faced criticism for the numbers of deaths incurred by the party.

This necklace, composed of 34 human teeth held by braided fibres, was donated to the Museum of the Odontological Society in November 1890 by R.H. Woodhouse accompanied by a letter from Stanley himself. Stanley reported that the necklace was taken from a fallen warrior after a fight between his party and a tribe on the Ituri River. The necklace was brought back to England as evidence of the cannibal tribes Stanley claimed to have encountered on his expeditions into the Congo. In their discussions, the members of the Odontological Society were particularly interested in the prevalence of caries, or tooth decay, in the teeth of the necklace. Tooth decay was thought at the time to be a disease of what they referred to as the ‘civilised world’ due to its association with sugar. The President noted in the Transactions of the Society that such human tooth necklaces were commonly known to be worn as trophies. The teeth for this necklace were reportedly obtained by burning the skulls of vanquished enemies.

Many museum collections contain human tooth necklaces brought back by colonial explorers who used them as evidence of cannibalistic practices amongst the tribes they encountered. Although certain indigenous groups in this region and elsewhere in the world such as the South Pacific performed cannibalistic rituals, the connection with tooth necklaces is not as clear. The cultural meanings of human tooth necklaces are complex. Some scholars consider them to be prestige items in which power from slain enemies or ancestors is passed to the wearer. Human and animal teeth have been used in cultures around the world in personal ornamentation to indicate status, wealth or for medical purposes such as charms to ward off tooth-ache.

  1. H.M. Stanley and the officers of the Advance Column, Cairo, 1890. Wikicommons
  2. Necklace of human teeth brought back from the Congo region by H.M. Stanley, RCSOM/M 4.2. Copyright the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
  3. Meeting the Rear Column at Banalya, In Darkest Africa (1890) Wikicommons.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Announcing the 2014 "Congress for Curious People," in Conjunction with Coney Island USA, April 25th - May 4th

Morbid Anatomy is thrilled to announce, in conjunction with Coney Island USA, the 2014 "Congress for Curious People"--a ten day series of lectures and performances culminating in a two day symposium, all of which explore curiosity and curiosities broadly considered. This year's Congress takes "simulation" as its theme, and will feature many of our all-time favorite international scholars, artists, performers and thinkers, including Evan Michelson, Edgar Oliver, Les the Mentalist, Shannon Taggart, Biran Catling, Anthony Matt, Zoe Beloff, John Troyer, Mat Fraser, Salvador Olguin, Amy Herzog, Jennifer Miller, Betsy Bradley, Ronni Thomas and Chris Muller.

The full schedule for the Congress for Curious Peoples follows. You can find out more about all events--and purchase tickets!--by clicking here. All events take place at Coney Island USA in Brooklyn, New York and are supported by The British Council and a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Hope very much to see you there!

Opening Party

Friday, April 25, 2014 - 8:00pm
More here.
Alumni Weekend
Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 1:00pm - Sunday, April 27, 2014 - 7:00pm
More here.
Industrial Ladies - A lecture by Evan Michelson
Monday, April 28, 2014 - 7:30pm
More here.
Desire and the Sea - A performance by Edgar Oliver
Monday, April 28 at 9:00pm
More here.
Acep Hale: Chicanery, Counting, and Cee-lo: Memory and Simulation in Service to Skulduggery
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - 7:30pm
More here.
A Thrilling Journey Into the Mind with Les the Mentalist
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - 9:00pm
More here.
The Coney Island Beach Ball - A Vogue Competition between the House of Vogue 3D and The Coney Island Dancers
Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 9:00pm
More here.
Kirlian Devices, William Burroughs, and Radionic Photography - An Illustrated Series of Lectures by Shannon Taggart, James Riley, Doug Skinner and Anthony Matt
Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 7:30pm
More here.
Mechanical Medium - A film by Zoe Beloff with live sound by Gen. Ken Montgomery
Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 9:00pm
More here.
TravSD: From Angels to Anarchists: The Evolution of the Marx Brothers
Friday, May 2, 2014 - 7:30pm
More here.
Penny Arcade at the Penny Arcade
Friday, May 2, 2014 - 9:00pm
More here.
The Congress for Curious People Symposium on "Simulation"
Saturday, May 3 and Sunday, May 4 at 11:00 AM - 6 PM

Saturday, May 3, 2014 - 11:00am

Sarah Johnson’s lecture on Jacques Marchais and the replica of a Tibetan Monastery on Staten Island. Followed by a film clip by Sal Olguin and a panel discussion moderated by Don Jolly and featuring Sarah Johnson, and Sal Olguin.

12:30pm: Lunch

Shannon Taggart, Acep Hale, and George Hansen who will give three short presentations on Myth and Popular Culture, Michael Jackson’s After Life, and Uri Geller at the Crossroads. Followed by a Q and A, moderated by Aaron Beebe

Chris Muller’s lecture on the history of display. Followed by World’s Fair home movies and a panel discussion moderated by Joanna Ebenstein and featuring Betsy Bradley and Chris Muller.
5:00pm: Break

5:30pm: Screening: “Vanished! A Video Seance” (1999, 75 minutes) by Brian Catling. Followed by a Q and A with the artist.

7:00pm Dinner for Congressional Pass Holders and Participants.

Sunday, May 4, 2014 - 11:00am

11:00am: “PASSING”
Adrienne Albright’s lecture on Medieval Cross-dressers. Followed by a performance by Tara Mateik, a simulated talk by Amy Herzog, and a panel discussion moderated by Amy Herzog and featuring Jennifer Miller, Martha Wilson, Tara Mateik, and Adrienne Albright.

12:30pm: Lunch


3:00pm: Screening of Ronni Thomas' Morbid Anatomy Presents' “PHANTASAMAGORIA”

John Troyer, Joanna Ebenstein and Mat Fraser on “the Normal, the Abnormal, and the Pathological on Display” followed by a panel discussion moderated by John Troyer.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Light and Dust: A Reading of Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer's 'Homo ex Humo': A Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy Scholar in Residence Richard Barnett

This April, we have been delighted to host Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow and medical historian Richard Barnett as Morbid Anatomy Library Scholar in Residence. This is the first of what we hope will be many posts wherein Richard responds to objects, ideas and artifacts in our collection. Here, he draws out the intricate tangle of ideas in the the illustrations of Scheuchzer's 1731 Physica Sacra (top image) and the fetal skeleton tableaux of Frederik Ruysch (bottom image). Copies of both books now reside in the Morbid Anatomy Museum Collection.
Light and Dust: A Reading of Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer's 'Homo ex Humo'
By Richard Barnett

Homo ex Humo: man from the dust. Scheuchzer’s intriguing trompe l’oie presents a picture within a picture, and a meditation on some of the oppositions at the heart of Christianity – eternity and time, grace and sin, flesh and word, light and dust.

Everything within the frame is graceful, in the most literal sense. Scheuchzer shows us the Garden of Eden on the evening of the sixth day of creation, as set out in the Book of Genesis 1:26-27 (King James Version):
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
A landscape which to modern eyes bears such clear traces of deep time and evolution served Scheuchzer and his readers well as a symbol of creation. The first dew is hardly dry on the ground, and even the dust, the abject and impermanent dust, is fresh and new. A gentle, sylvan river valley is busy with life: trees, flowers, fruits, grasses, and most of all animals, paired off two by two like the figures in a Victorian Noah’s Ark (though not in the Biblical version – see Genesis 7:1-3). Rabbits and horses, muskrats and storks have been made whole through union with a mate, and their lives are as complete as the paradise they inhabit.

Only one creature lacks a partner. Adam, the first man, seems startled to have been vaulted so suddenly into existence, and the curious position of his hands indicates an absence in his life, even in the moment of his creation. He appears to be trying to pray, but each hand cannot find its natural counterpart. If he is to praise his creator, if he is to live as contentedly the animals over which he has been granted dominion, he needs a companion. The voluptuous shapes of roots and tree-trunks beside him foreshadow what is on God’s mind, but the fulfilment of Adam’s lack will destroy the paradise we see.

Everything outside the frame is imperfect, and this imperfection is a consequence of the story unfolding within the frame. God creates Adam, then Eve, causing Adam to fall into a deep sleep and making the first woman from his rib (Genesis 1:18-25). Eve is tempted by the serpent and tempts Adam; both taste fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and fall from their original state of grace. Dissected specimens around the frame contrast the messy, fleshly reality of human reproduction, in sin and without grace, with the purity of God’s original creation in the picture – a shaft of light and a word.

On the right side of the frame is one of the strangest figures in Western art, borrowed from the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch’s 'Tableau With Three Skeletons.' Ruysch combines two near-universal representations of birth and death – an infant and a skeleton – into a single figure expressing the sublime tragedy of creation and fall. The largest figure in the engraving, it seems to have stepped out of the picture and on to the frame, and this movement from perfection to imperfection may help to explain why it is drying its empty eye-sockets with a caul.

Inverting the natural order of things, this skeleton has died before it could be born, and it weeps for what is to come. If it is a child of Adam and Eve, is it Cain, the first murderer, or Abel, the first victim of murder? Leaving Eden, carrying the burden of original sin, it enacts the fall and banishment of its parents, taking the first reluctant steps on a long and hard road to salvation. No wonder it weeps, then; what can dry bones weep but dust?

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Morbid Anatomy Museum Update, or, "Wow! This is Really Happening!"

Morbid Anatomy is currently fundraising to support our transformation from a tiny, overstuffed Library to a new 3-floor, 4,200 square foot Morbid Anatomy Museum. The new Museum will have a giftshop featuring waxworks, taxidermy, and obscure books; a café (which will eventually serve cocktails!); a greatly expanded permanent collection; and temporary exhibitions devoted to topics such as The Art of Death, Frederik Ruysch, and, of course, 19th century anthropomorphic taxidermist Walter Potter.  It will also have a larger, dedicated event space with, thanks to a recent grant from Awesome Without Borders, live-streamed lectures for the enjoyment of our non-New York followers!

Things have been progressing very quickly the new space! Walls are being built, windows installed, the exterior is beginning to move towards its final look, and our new Morbid Anatomy library door--see above!--has arrived, and is ready for stenciling!

We have been raising money for this project primarily via Kickstarter; we have just passed the 50% mark for our $60,000 goal, but we still need your help! You support the Kickstarter by clicking here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1038582734/the-morbid-anatomy-museum.

To sweeten the deal, we have just added a new award: a hand-written poem and drawing "about a method of death of your choice" by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Other awards include limited edition prints by artists Mark Ryden and Mark Dion; shooting antique guns with Mike Zohn of TV's "Oddities;" a collectable set piece from Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas; special Morbid Anatomy merch; and much, much more!

You can also support by attending our Morbid Anatomy Museum Kickstarter fundraising party this Friday, April 18. Your admission will not only be an excellent act of charity; it will also act as a Kickstarter contribution, getting you a Morbid Anatomy Tote Bag as well as a credit for two free tickets to the future Morbid Anatomy Museum. More on that here.

Thanks so much for your support! It means the world to us, and is invaluable in helping us make this bizarre and beautiful dream into a fully-realized reality. Whether you can help support this project or not, hope very much to see you in the new space!

Images, top to bottom:
  1. Rendering of the Morbid Anatomy Museum by Architects Robert Kirkbride and Anthony Cohn
  2. Morbid Anatomy Museum exterior
  3. Grants and exhibitions coordinator Aaron Beebe with the new Morbid Anatomy Library door

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Amsterdam Anatomy Weekend with Morbid Anatomy and The Incredible Vrolik Museum, May 10 and 11th

The Vrolik Museum--Amsterdam’s incredible anatomical museum, of which many photos above--and Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum are proud to be teaming up to present Amsterdam Anatomy Weekend on May 10th and 11th, 2014 at the Museum Vrolik.

The weekend will feature a special program of lectures, workshops, demonstrations and exclusive museum and backstage tours showcasing The Vrolik's phenomenal and historical collection of osteology, teratology, natural history and curiosities. British Wax modeller and sculptor Eleanor Crook--artist in residence at Gordon’s Museum at Guy’s Hospital in London--will lead two workshops in which students will create---and leave with—their own dermatological wax model, or "moulage."

Other activities will include exclusive back stage tours of the Vrolik’s astouding storage rooms (2nd image down); lectures about amazing 17th century anatomical collections such as those of the “Artist of Death” Frederik Ruysch; demonstrations of wet specimen restoration and skeleton mounting and reconstruction; and special museum tours focusing on congenital malformations and historical highlights. There will also be a reception in the museum at which copies of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology will be available for sale and signing.

The Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy is part of the Netherlands Month of Anatomy organized by the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, the University Museum of Utrecht, and the Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam with the Morbid Anatomy Museum of Brooklyn, New York.

Full details below, and more here; hope very much to see you there!
The Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy
The Vrolik--Amsterdam’s anatomical museum--and Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum are proud to present a weekend devoted to anatomy over the weekend of May 10th and 11th, 2014. To celebrate, the Vrolik will be open to the public with a special program of lectures, workshops, demonstrations and exclusive museum and backstage tours showcasing its phenomenal and historical collection of osteology, teratology, natural history and curiosities.
Highlights include a workshop in wax modeling with sculptor Eleanor Crook in which students will create---and leave with—their own anatomical or dermatological wax model; demonstrations of liquid anatomical specimen restoration and skeleton mounting and reconstruction; a museum tour focusing on teratology, the specimens of congenital malformations in the Vrolik collection, and historical highlights of the collection; lectures about amazing 17th century anatomical collections such as those of “Artist of Death” Frederik Ruysch; and back stage tours of the Vrolik’s storage rooms.

Moulage/Wax Modelling Workshop
During the weekend of anatomy, British Wax modeller and sculptor Eleanor Crook will give two workshops. Crook has created anatomical and pathological waxes for several medical and science museums in Britain (e.g. the Science Museum and the Hunterian Museum), and is artist in residence at Gordon’s Museum at Guy’s Hospital, London. She has led many workshops in wax modelling, but this is her first in the Netherlands. For anyone familiar with the famous anatomical and pathological waxes in Vienna, Paris or Bologna, and who would like to experience the art of wax modelling for him or herself, this workshop offers a unique opportunity. All materials and tools are provided for this workshop, and each student will leave with their own beautiful wax model. Please note: Application for this workshop is separate from the rest of the program. See program and prices for separate charge.
Demonstration of Skeleton Mounting
In this demonstration, skeleton articulator Lucas Boer will put together a complete animal skeleton from its separate bones, explain the structure and function of these bones, and point out the differences in bone structure in the main groups of vertebrates. Visitors will also be invited to touch the animal bones and skulls.
Wet Specimen Restoration
In this demonstration, anatomical technician and specimen conservator Inge Dijkman will show the ways in which the Vrolik’s century-old collection of wet specimens are maintained and restored. Viewers will see the anatomical specimens removed from their jars, learn about the kind of liquids used for preservation, and witness all the steps needed for the care, upkeep and restoration of these incredible specimens.
Special Tours and Lectures
A series of special lectures and tours will focus on historical and medical aspects of some of the most famous and enigmatic Dutch anatomical collections, such as those of 17th century Frederik Ruysch, referred to as “Artist of Death” by his biographer Luuc Kooijmans. Experts in the history of the Vrolik collection and in the field of congenital malformations will give special tours showing the historical highlights of the collection, and the origin of the congenital malformations in the collection. There will also be exclusive backstage tours of the Museum Vrolik’s storage rooms and of the hospitals collection of dermatological wax models, neither of which are generally accessible to the public.

Saturday May 10th
10:00 - 12:00     Lectures by Luuc Kooijmans (about the anatomist Frederik Ruysch); Frank Ijpma (about the surviving Ruysch specimens); Marieke Hendriksen (about beaded babies and decoration in anatomy) Joanna Ebenstein (about the persisting impact of Frederik Ruysch and about her new Morbid Anatomy Museum; and Eleanor Crook (about the art of wax modeling and its history).
12:00 - 13:00     Lunch
13:00 - 17:00     Workshops and demonstrations (wax models, mounting skeletons, liquid specimen restoration); historical highlights of Museum Vrolik-tour
From 17:00     Drinks in Museum Vrolik; sale and signing of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology
Sunday May 11th
10:00 - 12:00     Thematic city tour/ possibly visits to old anatomy tower in Waag on Nieuwmarkt
13:00 - 17:00     Workshops (Wax modeling) and museum tours (congenital malformations and historical highlights); backstage tour to wax models of dermatology and to the Museum Vrolik storage rooms.
  • Workshop medical wax modelling (Eleanor Crook): 65 euro per workshop (4 hrs)
  • Two day program (excl. workshop medical wax modelling): 25 euros
  • Program Saturday 10th of may (excl. workshop medical wax modelling): 15 euros
  • Program Sunday 11th of may (excl. workshop medical wax modelling): 15 euros
  • Lunch on Saturday: 7 euros
  • NB: lunch on Sunday is not provided due to the traveling between the city center and Academic Medical Center.
To sign up:
Please email museumvrolik@amc.uva.nl.  Please do not forget to select which part of the program you want to participate in.
Academic Medical Center: Museum Vrolik (ground floor, building section J) and lecture room and dissection rooms of anatomy, second floor, building section L)

Month of Anatomy
The Amsterdam Weekend of Anatomy is part of the Netherlands Month of Anatomy organized by the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, the University Museum of Utrecht, and the Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam with the Morbid Anatomy Museum of Brooklyn, New York. There will be three special weekends of lectures, tours and workshops concerning anatomy in May. Museum Vrolik is the first (10th and 11th of May); on the 24th and 25th of may a weekend of anatomy is organized by the University Museum of Utrecht and finally on 31st of may and the 1st of July Museum Boerhaave closes the month of anatomy. See for details about the activities of the other museums.
Photos of the museum overviews are by Paul Bomers; the other pictures are by Hans van den Bogaard, from the wonderful book Forces of Form.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Basel's Fasnacht Carnival and The Dance of Death: Guest Post by Jordan Marzuki

Morbid Anatomy reader Jordan Marzuki just sent in a fascinating guest post about Basel's Fasnacht Carnival and its relationship to death and pre-Christian rituals; he has also made a rather wonderful video of the parade which you can view above or by clicking here.
"Fasnacht" carnival takes its name from the start of the fasting season of lent. But this, the most important event in the life of Basel, Switzerland, is also fixed by Christian holy days. Carnival is always held six weeks before Easter, a week later than the Fas(t)nacht widely celebrated throughout neighboring German-speaking Catholic areas. The city of Basel is also associated with the "Totentanz" or dance of the death. That reminded people that whether rich or poor, and no matter one's station in life, everyone has to die.
Locals describe the event as the the three most beautiful days of the year. Up to 12,000 carnival participants march around the city in groups according to in their themed costumes and masks. Most of themes are associated with the topic of death – which is revering to the Basler Totentanz.

The Basler Fasnacht is now a part of the cultural identity of the city of Basel, and is often depicted as ancient tradition. Although the officially organized Carnival has only existed since 1920, it draws on traditions tracing back to pre-Christian times, and is connected with the spirits of the night, which are personified by masks. The masks represent a kind of struggle with the negative powers. With the end of winter, these spirits are driven away, the "expulsion of the winter," and the victory of spring.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On the Collection and Display of Human Remains: Guest Post by Evan Michelson, TV's "Oddities" and Morbid Anatomy Museum

The debate about the ethics of collecting and displaying human remains went mainstream recently with this CNN article about a man who stole over sixty human brains and other specimens from the Indiana Medical History Museum and tried to sell them on Ebay. Morbid Anatomy Museum's scholar in residence Evan Michelson is a researcher into the history of such collections, in contexts both sacred and secular. Following is her thoughtful and considered response to the CNN article, which went so far as to single out her show "Oddities" as "being illustrative of a growing trend for collecting curiosities, particularly anatomical specimens."
A CNN article published on January 3, 2014 chronicled the arrest of a young man who stole some early brain specimens from an Indiana medical museum to sell on Ebay. In the article the TV show "Oddities" was cited as being illustrative of a growing trend for collecting curiosities, particularly anatomical specimens. Said the executive director of the museum: "it's definitely bizarre. It's infuriating that they do not have respect for the human remains." This statement raises a few important points: I think everyone can agree that the illegal buying, selling and hoarding of exhumed or pilfered human remains is deeply disrespectful, repugnant, and indefensible on moral and legal grounds. No one can condone or defend such ghoulish goings-on. What is not being addressed, however, is an unavoidable truth: humans have always lived with, loved, and learned from our dead.

The urge to collect, display and venerate human remains is nothing new: it stretches back through the millennia, and plays a vital role in the history of science, medicine and many religions across cultures and around the globe.The widespread practice of ancestor worship originated at a time before recorded history (and is still practiced to this day). The gathering of bones is an irrepressible and primal human urge. Humans have long honored our dead with altars, elevating bones (particularly skulls) to a level of intimate spiritual totem. In many cultures the presence of human remains brings both comfort and continuity. From the Tibetan Kanling (a flute made from a human thigh bone) to the mummies of Palermo to the gorgeous calligraphy of 19th century French memorial hair work, to be in the material presence of the dead is to be one with generations past, to commune with the spirits, to ask favors, to remember, to harness power and to connect with the infinite.

In the service of science and medicine, human remains (such as those pilfered from the museum) have long been essential. It is only through contact with the dead that the secrets of the living have been revealed. The great anatomical insights of the classical physician and philosopher Galen (who primarily studied the anatomy of primates and pigs) are often overshadowed by the many glaring inaccuracies. These fatal mistakes ruled the study of anatomy for more than 1300 years, until anatomists like Andreas Vesalius delved into the human body proper to uncover a more accurate and comprehensive map of our internal architecture. In the 16th century depictions of these anatomical discoveries entered our collective human consciousness, and human dissections became works of high art and an essential part of the great humanist movement that flowed through the Renaissance and powered the scientific revolution. There followed the era of the beautiful corpse, when ceroplasts like Ercole Lelli and Clemente Susini created wax corpses and anatomical moulages of such surpassing beauty and accuracy that they inspired Popes, Emperors and commoners alike to see human anatomy as an important discipline worthy of respect and wonder. The human corpus had at last become a part of high and low common visual culture.

The preservation and display of actual human remains is a time-honored tradition in the great Positivist cities of the Western world, and most centers of learning had their own anatomical collections. These specimens of human anatomy were artfully prepared and displayed, and they illustrate the collective human journey from the realm of superstition through the refinements of natural philosophy and eventually to the rise of modern science. Exhibitions like "Body Worlds" still draw large crowds, eager to examine up-close what is so often kept hidden, and so often considered taboo. The sourcing of the "Body Worlds" cadavers is cause for justified legal and moral scrutiny, but their public display is an enlightening, time-honored tradition. For centuries, museums of anatomy have housed human specimens that are at once didactic, metaphorical and breathtakingly beautiful. These anatomized specimens can still be seen on exhibition in museums and in private collections, and they still provide unparalleled insight into our earthly selves. Anatomy is now digitized, and our bodies (down to a microscopic level) are available at the click of a button, but there is no substitute for the visceral presence of preserved anatomy; it is the best way to know ourselves.

Nowhere is the power of human remains more evident than in the evolution of the Christian religion and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church; there the collection and adoration of human body parts reached its artistic and spiritual pinnacle. The cult of the saints guaranteed that human remains would take center stage in the evolving political, economic and spiritual journey of the West. Religious pilgrims travelled great distances to be in the presence of the bones of the early martyrs, and the wealth thus generated drove an unprecedented competition for relics and a trade in human body parts (particularly in Western Europe) that determined the power centers of the modern world. We are all living in a map shaped by the preservation, display and possession of the dead.

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka is home to the tooth of the Buddha, one of the most celebrated relics on Earth. Once a year the relic is featured at a 10 day festival that includes fire dancers, musicians, street performers and scores of elephants. It draws an estimated crowd of one million participants, making it one of the largest Buddhist gatherings in the world. It is obvious that there is something irresistible about our anatomy, something that reaches us on a primal level. We fear and worship human remains, we shun death but we are irresistibly drawn to the dead. That young man who stole those brains broke the law and showed great disrespect in the commission of that crime. The instinct to collect, display and commune with the dead, however, is not as bizarre or disrespectful as some may think: it connects us with our earthly selves, and allows us to glimpse eternity.
Image sourced here.