Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Dissection on Display



I have just finished reading Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists and Public Spectacle by Christine Quigley and wanted to share with you my thoughts...

The book explores the history of public dissection from the very first recorded instance in the third century B.C.E., through Medieval times, into the 17th and 18th centuries and then right up to modern examples of display and anatomy such as Gunther von Hagen's Body Worlds.  Quigley uses a selection of themed chapters in which to examine the purposes of these events, and the main characters involved within a chronological sequence.

Various themes are explored within the book such as how public anatomy has been justified in a manor of guises over the centuries, for example as a means of education, as public entertainment and for the use of medical demonstration.  The idea of justice and the workings of God are similar explored as are aspects of racial and sexual themes.  A key acknowledgement throughout the book is that anatomy as a public spectacle is far from new - there has been a fine line between educating the public and entertainment over a period of many centuries and it still continues today.  Human anatomy on a public platform will always have an element of the spectacular surrounding it.

What has this got to do with Egyptology you may ask...well quite a bit actually!  Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will no doubt be aware of my fascination with the public viewing of Egyptian mummy unwrapping in the 19th century.  Quigley explores one of the masters of this type of spectacle in chapter 4, entitled Anatomists as Superlatives and Showmen.  Quigley devotes 13 pages to Thomas Pettigrew (1791 - 1865), probably the most famous of public mummy unwrappers and examines his place in human anatomy 'events' as well as discussing his legacy.

 Human dissection may seem an unlikely subject to read at leisure but Quigley provides a readable and informative account of how bodies have fascinated the public through their intimate examination.  I have found it a enlightening book and would recommend it to not only those like me who are particularly interested in the subject, but for those interested in history in general.  I promise you won't be disappointed!

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