Sunday, November 07, 2004

Disability, art and performance

Hi Petra,
I don't think I will be bringing the students in my class to the Mutter Museum this semester. When we spoke it wasn't clear what the focus of our course would be for the semester. As it turned out, these questions of medical representation are not terribly central to the interests of my students this time.

You did miss a very interesting (and frustrating) event at the College of Physicians last week (Oct 29 - oddly timed to coincide with Halloween weekend). This was a program held at the College's Founders Hall in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. Entitled "Anomalies, Curiosities, and the Medical Museum," the program (sponsored by the CPP Section on Medicine and the Arts) the event was dedicated to the memory of Gretchen Worden, (1947-2004), the very popular director of the Mütter Museum Director.

The four papers discussed the history of representation of medical anomalies, in print, theater and museum display. Although one paper did attempt to convey some of the personality behind the 'freak's' public persona (in that case, of Joseph Merrick, the famed 'Elephant Man'), the rest of the presentations appeared to glory in the grotesque display and push the boundary of the acceptable (reminiscent of the horror film context) without imparting any sense of humanity or meaning to the objects on display. In fact, the lack of humanity of the specimens on display was a point returned to again and again. The presenters all seemed to be associated with Penn or Drexel University, except for James Edmondson, who came to town to present a memorial tribute to Gretchen Worden, the curator of the Mutter Museum who passed away in June. I think he would be an excellent interlocutor for your book. The other presenters had prepared papers, but seemed to presenting work for the first time in this area.

Steven J. Peitzman, MD, FACP Chair, Section on Medical History at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, & Professor of Medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine
Dr. Peitzman looked at printed collections of medical anomalies, focusing particularly collection of Philadelphia physicians George Gould and Walter L. Pyle (Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, 1901).

David H. Flood, Ph.D. Professor, Health and Society Programs, Drexel University
Professor Flood's presentation was on Joseph Merrick in popular culture over the past century. His talk was pretty cursory - the organizers didn't allow him to project his slides!

Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D. Senior Fellow, Center for Bioethics University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Wolpe's presentation focused on the messages that visitors derive from the displays in the Mutter Museum, beginning with his own students. He observed that in recent years his students have displayed more anger than surprise to experiencing the works on display. Included in his PowerPoint presentation were many of the art images that had been used in the Museum Calendars over the years.

James M. Edmondson, Ph.D. Chief Curator, Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum Case Western Reserve University
A close friend to Gretchen Worden's, Dr. Edmondson showed slides from their visits to European medical museums over the years. I think he would make a tremendous resource for your research.

From the content of their talks and my brief conversations with them afterwards, the presenters appeared entirely unaware of Disability Studies. At times the program was downright offensive, with some of the more graphic images being left projected onto the screen for entirely too long. What a difference from the event that you and I enjoyed down at the U.S. Army Medical Museum.

How is your semester going? Just this morning I'm returning to email after attending another conference that was held at the College of Physicians. Entitled 'Health and Medicine in the Era of Lewis and Clark,' the conference brought together a number of noted scholars of the early American republic. The conference gave me some paper ideas, and it featured a presentation by Daniel Blackie, examining "'Disability' in the Early Republic" through the window of U.S. Army Pension applications filed in 1820. I also was able to meet Ben Mutschler whose new book project is on experiences of Revolutionary War Veterans. I look forward to reading their writings on the emerging discourse of disability amongst Revolutionary War Veterans once their work is completed. I encouraged them to consider presenting their work at an upcoming meeting of the Society for Disability Studies, and reminded them of the publishing venues Disability Studies Quarterly and Disability and Society.

How are things at Bryant College? Looking forward to our further conversations.