By Stephen J. Greenberg
As a rule, items are included in the NLM’s History of Medicine Division collection because of their medical or, more broadly, their scientific significance. But the boundaries between science and art have always been porous, and an exhibition loan request from an art museum is not unusual.
Recently, we were contacted by Isabelle Chartier, Curator at the University Art Gallery, University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Chartier works with Professors Drew Armstrong and Josh Ellenbogen to teach a graduate seminar in the department of the History of Art and Architecture at Pitt, and part of the course requirement is for the students to curate an exhibit in the gallery space. Their latest project is an exhibition is entitled Configuring Disciplines: Fragments of an Encyclopedia, “a collaborative exhibition project based on research by students in the Department of History of Art and Architecture. The exhibition examines modes of visualization used to represent knowledge in a variety of academic disciplines that have developed from the Enlightenment to the Modern period (18th–20th centuries). Books and artworks drawn from Pittsburgh libraries and museums raise questions about the intrinsic qualities of two- and three-dimensional media (engraving, photography, digital projection, plastic models, buildings) and their function within fields of inquiry ranging from astronomy, botany and physics to aesthetics, ethnography and history.”
Objects to be included in the exhibition were requested from local institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh Hillman Special Collections, Frick Fine Arts Library and Falk Library of the Health Sciences, the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Warhol Museum, the William R. Oliver Special Collections Room at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and (further afield), from the National Library of Medicine.
The item that Professor Chartier’s class wished to borrow has an interesting history. It is a variant of a poster created by the modernist artist Fritz Kahn. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Kahn published “a succession of books on the inner workings of the human body, using visual metaphors drawn from industrial society—assembly lines, internal combustion engines, refineries, dynamos, telephones, etc”. To Kahn, the human body was “an Industrial Palace,” modern and productive, a theme he emphasized through his modernist artwork. Basically, the poster is a fanciful representation in cross-section of the human body as though it were a factory, full of pulleys, conveyor belts, and very complicated plumbing. Various offices are labelled luftröhre (windpipe), leber (liver), magen (stomach), and darm (intestines). It might have been serious and high tech in the 1930’s, but it all looks rather quaint today, and not without an element of humor. Kahn was deeply committed to using his art to demystify the anatomy and physiology of the body. In 1970, Sandoz AG, a Swiss company, published a slightly simplified poster based on Kahn’s work for promotional purposes. This was the item requested by Prof. Chartier’s class for their exhibit. After an evaluation of its condition, the poster was framed by NLM conservation staff and sent off to Pittsburgh, where it is currently on display in the Configuring Disciplines exhibition.
The University Art Gallery is located on the first floor of the Frick Fine Arts Building on Schenley Drive, across from the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The University Art Gallery’s regular hours are Monday-Friday, 10 AM–4 PM. There will be expanded hours during Pitt’s Family Weekend on: Friday, September 19 from 10 AM–6 PM and on Saturday, September 20 and Sunday, September 21 from 11 AM–5 PM. The exhibition’s closing weekend will coincide with a Graduate Symposium organized by students from the department of History of Art and Architecture; public hours will be expanded on Saturday, October 4 and Sunday, October 5, 11 AM–5 PM. The gallery also opens by appointment. Admission is always free.
For general information on the gallery and the exhibition, visit www.haa.pitt.edu, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-648-2423.