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New Exhibit: Animated Anatomies

Library Exhibit Explores the Art, Science, and History of Anatomical Illustration

Opening Reception: April 18, 10am, Duke Medical Center Library
Symposium: April 18, 1-6pm, Perkins Library

Reception, symposium, and exhibit are all free and open to the public.

A new exhibition spanning two Duke libraries explores the age-old, visually engrossing (and occasionally just plain gross) genre of scientific literature known as anatomical “flap books.” Animated Anatomies: The Human Body in Anatomical Texts from the 16th to 21st Centuries weaves together the history of science, medical instruction, and the intricate art of bookmaking. The exhibition, divided between Perkins Library and the Duke Medical Center Library, will be on display April 6-July 18.

Anatomical flap books date to the sixteenth century. The books take their name from the layers of moveable paper flaps that can be lifted from the page to reveal something underneath—not unlike today’s pop-up books for children. Originally designed as instructional tools, flap books allowed early physicians and other medical professionals to study and discuss the intricacies of the human body normally hidden to the eye.

Through the hands-on process of exposing layer after layer of anatomical illustrations, flap books mimic the act of human dissection, inviting the viewer to participate in a virtual autopsy, so to speak. Whether it’s a sixteenth-century hand-colored treatise on the layers of the eye or a nineteenth-century obstetrical guide in 3-D for performing cesareans, these books draw the viewer in.

Over time, as advances in both science and printing promoted more widespread medical knowledge, anatomical flap books began to appeal to more general audiences eager to learn about their own bodies’ inner workings. Technological developments in machine printing also allowed for more colorful and precise illustrations than the hand-colored treatises of the early modern period. Gustave J. Witkowski, a practicing physician in Paris in the late nineteenth century, designed and created multiple anatomical atlases. His ten-part Human Anatomy and Physiology depicts specific parts of the body in painstaking detail. One item, a life-sized hand, contains over nine flaps. Within the flaps of the hand are smaller flaps of the fingers, revealing muscles, tendons, and bones, all of it depicted in vibrant grays, blues, tans, and deep reds. Words do little justice to the visual wonder and technical complexity of these virtual “bodies” of knowledge.

Animated Anatomies will be on display in the Perkins Library Gallery and in the gallery outside the History of Medicine Collections at Duke’s Medical Center Library. The exhibit is curated by Valeria Finucci, professor of Romance Studies and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Duke University, and Maurizio Rippa-Bonati, historian of medicine and professor at the University of Padua. The exhibit includes materials from Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library; the History of Medicine Collections at the Medical Center Library and Archives; and the private collection of Professor Rippa-Bonati.

In addition to the exhibit, an opening reception will take place Monday, April 18, at 10 a.m. at the Medical Center Library, followed by a 1-6 p.m. symposium in Perkins Library with renowned scholars in the fields of medicine, history, and medical history.

According to Professor Finucci, both the exhibition and symposium (which are free and open to the public) will appeal to a broad range of audiences, including those interested in medicine, cultural studies, history, visual studies, and the study of the book. “Flap books illustrate bodies immersed in the intellectual, aesthetic, technological, philosophical, gendered, even religious culture of the time in which they were produced,” said Professor Finucci. “They allow for a material reading of their medical content. In the interchange between the doctor/anatomist and the illustrator/technician, the body parts that emerge acquire a life (and a beauty) of their own.”

To learn more about the exhibit, see photos of anatomical flap books, and watch videos of them in action, visit the Animated Anatomies exhibit website.

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Posted 7 April 2011

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Last modified April 7, 2011 1:24:38 PM EDT