Relevância das colecções anatómicas | Relevance of anatomical collections

Instituto de Anatomia, Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de Lisboa | ©


Importance of preserving Human anatomical collections to the medical and cultural heritage

In recent decades, historians have included objects – material culture – in their research, as subjects of inquiry. The study of objects and their relationship to the human world have been particularly important to the History of Science. Objects not only allow scientific practices but also actively shape these practices. Hence, historians have focused their research on the role of scientific objects and collections in the formation of knowledge, disciplines and the development of academic networks. Also, by studying the trajectories of these objects and their signifiers, historians understand knowledge as a process resulting from the interaction and communication between different actors.

Noteworthy, in the history of medicine, the emphasis on the material cultural led to a renewed interest in the circulation of anatomical objects. By trying to understand the transit of anatomical objects – wax and paper models, body parts and atlases – they intend to grasp the dissemination of anatomy as a discipline, the different audiences and the constant reinterpretations.

Objects in anatomical collections are not only made of human material, they also include labels, jars, stands, display cases, preservative liquids, glasses and catalogues. Anatomical museums and collections represent specific cultural practices, based on the scientific medical study of the human body as well as practice on exhibiting them to a larger audience. These practices have changed over time, and every object in an anatomical museum is a product of time-specific practices.

Anatomical models are charged with different values such as cultural, personal, religious and scientific. Preserved human remains can, depending on the social context, represent a deceased subject to the family and friends of the deceased and an object to anatomists. As such, historians began to write object biographies, highlighting the role of human remains in scientific collections. In anatomical collections the biography is “the practitioner rather than the patient” (Samuel Alberti, 2011) as is mainly the preparator’s name that features on the label of the anatomical object.

Nowadays in Portugal, and as this project illustrates, anatomical objects can still be used for both display and educational purposes. This is often not the case in other countries, where anatomical collections are used solely for display purposes.

These collections are relevant for future generations of medical students and faculty, for future medical research, for the history of medicine in general, for the history of the institutions to which they belong and for a wider understanding of the cultural history of the body. Many of these collections document diseases and medical conditions that no longer exist or are rare, teaching methods and techniques of manufacture and display are no longer practised. In some cases these materials allow us to understand key changes and developments in Western medicine and its dissemination.

Also, these collections are crucial for interdisciplinary studies that investigate interactions between art and science. Collections allow to study the interaction between anatomists, scientists and anatomical artists and other occupational groups involved in anatomical and pathological displays. They reveal: 1) how new artistic and documentary techniques and materials were adopted by practitioners and 2) how the body and the natural world was presented for the medical, scientific and lay audiences. Ultimately they are important for knowing ourselves and our body.

Finally, for historians to be able to study such anatomical objects and collections, there was a need to identify the location of these objects in Portugal, and to compile the information in one place. With this project and the creation of this website, I hope to sparkle curiosity of researchers and raise awareness for the importance of studying these objects and their institutions on a deeper level.

Further reading

Arnold K, Söderqvist T. (2011) Medical instruments in museums: immediate impressions and historical meanings. Isis 102(4):718-29.

Pickering, J. (2013). Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by Samuel J. M. M. Alberti. Victorian Studies, 55(2), 352-354.

Secord, J. (2004). Knowledge in Transit. Isis, 95(4), 654-672

Sugand K, Abrahams P, Khurana A. The anatomy of anatomy: a review for its modernization. Anat Sci Educ. 2010 Mar-Apr;3(2):83-93. 

Talairach-Vielmas L.,  “Anatomical Models: A History of Disappearance?”, Histoire, médecine et santé, 5 | 2014, 9-20

Tybjerg, K. (2019) Sharp and telling: Surgical collections as instruments of medicine, history and culture, Journal of the History of Collections, Volume 31, Issue 3, November 2019, Pages 547–562