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Anatomy: A Matter of Life and Death

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life is a must-see this autumn. From charms to life masks, this exhibition explores the relationship between science and art through the history of dissection.
Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci would often use people as the subject matter of their artworks, because in order to depict a realistic presentation of the human body a basic understanding of human anatomy was needed. Leonardo da Vinci went further than his peers by developing a deep understanding of our lungs and muscle movements.

Da Vinci aimed to understand the inner-workings of the human body, the structure of the lungs and how ligaments help with bodily movement to create a successful and accurate depiction of the human body. Despite not being entirely accurate, da Vinci’s delicate drawings, exhibited in Anatomy display the Renaissance artist’s interest in science and determination to merge science with art.

Throughout this exhibition it is made abundantly clear just how different the depiction and interpretation of the human body was in the past. It is no secret that female anatomy, especially the medical research surrounding pregnancy and post-partum, is severely underdeveloped in comparison to the study of male anatomy. For example, eighteenth-century pregnant anatomy dolls are more aesthetic in appearance than accurate.

Historically women have been viewed as sexual objects whose main purpose in life was to bear children for their husbands, so it came as no surprise to see eighteenth-century presentations of the female anatomy were represented by inaccurate depictions of pregnant women.

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In addition to inaccurate perceptions of the human body, pre-modern medical practices seem almost dystopian today, including a cabinet displaying charms. Despite these objects’ pleasant appearance, they were used to cure illnesses in torturous ways, presenting the extent to which the eighteenth and nineteen century bourgeoise were desperate to preserve their health and status.

Much like da Vinci, doctors in the nineteenth century aimed to develop a deeper understanding of the human body. Dissection became a highly popular form of educating medical students at the University of Edinburgh, the first time students could explore the body fully from peeling the skin of the dead to understanding the proportions of organs.

However, dissection was incredibly elitist, and this exploratory work excluded those who couldn’t afford to be taught at expensive institutions. This exclusion of the working class led to gravediggers illegally capturing dead bodies from graveyards and selling them to aspiring doctors and medical researchers. There is also the popular story of Burke and Hare, two notorious murderers who killed for profit, selling the bodies of their victims to Dr Robert Knox, a prominent anatomy lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.

The exhibition concludes with video testimonials from current nurses, doctors and medical students explaining why giving your body to science is beneficial to anatomical studies today and in the future, a lesson I did not expect to learn from an exhibition that displays Renaissance drawings. The National Museum have created a beautifully curated exhibition that brings attention to the important relationship between art and science, and how anatomical studies has been a vital part of scientific research for centuries and continues to be necessary for the future generation.

Anatomy: A Matter of Life and Death is being exhibited at The National Museum of Scotland until the 30th October 2022. 

Image ‘Anatomy Lecture Theatre’ by Open Ed is licensed under CC BY 2.0.