Amala Poli // I recently visited the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa to explore the Medical Sensations exhibition, curated by David Pantalony and launched in November, 2017. The curation of this exhibition reveals a profound engagement with medical humanities by enabling the visitor to interact with medical culture. Organized around the five senses, the exhibition seeks to invite a layperson to learn the history of medicine through stations of sensory engagement which involve the visitor’s active participation. The collection challenges the fixity of glass structures where the onlooker reads, observes, reflects and moves on after imbibing a universally evident knowledge, as is the case with a traditionally curated museum (Wexler 25). Aspiring for an embodied engagement, it invites the visitor to play the role of physician.

Ranging from a robotic surgery simulation where two steel arms can be manipulated to pick up circular metal hoops and drop them on spiked structures to a station where smelling odors of rotting apples or nail polish remover to determine the disease that causes them, the collection involves an embodiment in the physician-awareness that one carries through the space. One station in the collection invites the visitor to listen to different heartbeats and try to gauge the beat that has a heart murmur by first playing a normal heartbeat’s sound. This donning of the physician role through a series of sensory games illustrates the collection’s investment in communicating the modes of investigation involved in medicine through “human connection” (Sibbald E1562). It simulates the physican-patient encounter with the station presenting itself as a site of diagnosis. The official advisor and medical historian Shelley McKellar’s comments on the art of medicine and the ubiquity with which it is overlooked in the practicality of medical practice inform the ethos of the collection (qtd. in Sibbald E1562).

Beside the robotic surgery simulation is a display of surgical instruments from the tourniquet and scarificators of the 1850s to the 1950 dilator and the modern scalpel in its evolution. This is one example of the collection’s sparse, yet careful engagement with medical history. While self-conscious of the evolution of medical technology and its impact on patient care, the exhibition remains reflexive of the impact on medical culture. It does not concern itself only with outlining a complex and complicated history, but instead focuses on the experience of medicine from the physician’s perspective. By embodying the physician’s role, the visitor occupies the medical gaze in an opportunity to subvert it and perceive the body as a node of observation and diagnosis. Further, the physician-visitor tries out diagnosis in a risk-free environment, gaining a deeper appreciation of the intricacy of process involved in the medical encounter of the modern clinic.

The exhibition also remains above cautionary warnings against disease or little quips intended to thrust the visitor back into an awareness of their own bodily fallibility. This maintains the aura of playful authority that the collection produces in its coterminous historicization of medical technology alongside experiential engagement. A urine wheel from 1506 demonstrates the significance of taste in diagnosis, though it steers clear of imitating it for the contemporary visitor.

William Osler’s renowned statement on observation marks the ethos of the collection in a station with a brief history of his work and importance and a plaque on learning at the bedside: “Use your five senses; the art of the practice of medicine is to be learned only by experience. Learn to see, learn to hear, learn to feel, learn to smell, and know that by practice alone can you become expert” (“Medical Sensations Exhibit”). The collection strives to enact this through the stations geared towards the visitor’s attempt to understand medical authority, by producing the range of diagnostic measures in the modern clinic in separate stations set up for examination by any visitor. This also presents medical authority in an accessible setting, allowing for the interaction between museum and visitor to play with the dynamic of the doctor-patient relationship.

Perhaps in a deliberate move to focus on the physician’s awareness and perspective, the patient is an absent and imagined figure in the collection. However, an “Inside the Body Interactive” station displays skeletal, muscular and nervous systems that match the internal structure of the visitor who moves in front of a body-sized screen. Visitors dance in front of this screen, watching different body systems appear on the screen based on their choice.

“One of the first full-scale medical exhibits in a North American Museum” (Sibbald E1564), the Medical Sensations collection allows the visitor to appreciate the art of medicine through the physician’s eye, while interacting with the evolution of medical technology. The collection demonstrates the five senses in their work of diagnosis, each a kind of synechdoche to the larger conceptual apparatus of the diagnostic work of medicine.

Works Cited

Pantalony, David. “The colour of medicine.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 2009, vol. 181, no. 6-7, pp. 402-3. doi:10.1503/cmaj.091058

Sibbald, Barbara. “Medical sensations: experience doctoring.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 2017, vol. 189, no. 50, pp. E1562-E1564. doi:10.1503/cmaj.171336

Wexler, Alice. “Museum Culture and the Inequities of Display and Representation.” Visual Arts Research, 2007, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 25-33.

Header Image: Five people, each exercising one of the five senses. Coloured lithography by Louis Boilly, 1823?.

Wellcome Collection,

Keep reading

%d bloggers like this: