Category Archives: Medical Museum

Person in a bottle

When they first encounter our collection, I think a lot of visitors wonder, at least transiently, about who these people were. I guess this reaction is most likely when looking at the bits we associate strongly with the self, like a heart or an intact brain, and less likely when viewing, say, a pancreas or gall bladder.

For the sake of confidentiality, our specimens are anonymised and any obvious identifiers are removed from their history. Still, a few personal details may slip into the records, giving just a hint about the life and more often the death, of the person in the bottle. This is what a UCT fine arts student, Juliet Forsyth, was looking for when she compiled “Exposing individuality”.

“I went searching for shreds of humanity that were captured amongst the clinical data which I then linked to the specific specimen kept at the Centre.”

Such detail turned out to be incredibly scarce, and a hunt through the records of approximately 3500 catalogued and uncatalogued specimens in the general pathology section turned up only 10 that Juliet felt were informative. “I attached (the) sentences which hint at the personality or life of the individual to the organ that remains, so that their life may be remembered when looking at these very detached objects.”

She transposed the text onto the specimen bottles, and one comes across these particular bottles unexpectedly among all the others. Some examples are shown in the slides below:

Another artist working in the genre of “art meets science”, Karen Ingram, has had a similar instinct with regards to the Hunterian museum. Hunter seems to have documented quite a bit about his patients, and since they died over 200 years ago, the need for confidentiality has arguably lapsed.

Ingram’s short film “narrative remains” translates the records into imagined commentary from the patients themselves, so reviving what is known of their histories.