The International Museum of Surgical Science is secretly an art museum. Of course, as its name indicates, the museum’s primary goal is to inform visitors about the history and development of surgery and medicine. Nevertheless, art plays a surprisingly critical role in this process.
The IMSS is home to over 800 works of art ranging in genre from paintings to sculptures to prints and photographs. These pieces are consistently integrated into exhibits as a means to communicate scientific information. Busts of iconic figures in medical history and paintings of groundbreaking surgical discoveries serve as a tool for documentation to engage the viewer.
The prevalence of art throughout the museum’s collection dates back more than half a century. Many of the sculptures and paintings in the permanent collection were commissioned specifically for the museum. In fact, Dr. Max Thorek, who founded the IMSS in 1954, was an art photographer.
According to Lindsey Thieman, Program Coordinator for the IMSS’s “Anatomy in the Gallery” program, “the large role that artwork plays in the museum’s exhibits and its overall identity can be attributed to his [Thorek’s] influence. However, I do think that the combination of surgery and art makes sense. Surgery is distinguished among other medical specialties as the work of the hands, with an emphasis on craft and technique. It is likewise a creative, generative practice.”
The importance of this connection between the creation that takes place in surgery and in art is perhaps best felt in the IMSS’s Hall of Murals. This series of paintings by Italian artist Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo emotively render significant moments in the history of surgery.
Another critical component of the IMSS’s art collection is the Hall of Immortals, a gallery containing 12 eight-foot stone statues depicting medical notables now deemed “immortal” ranging from Imhotep (the world’s first physician) to modern day legend Marie Curie.
Despite its many methods of incorporating the visual arts into the scientific world, perhaps the most innovative and artistically relevant is the “Anatomy in the Gallery” program. The program, which has been going strong since 1998, displays contemporary art which addresses medical, surgical or health related issues. The exhibits are shown two at a time, in separate galleries.
Unlike many of the works at the IMSS, “Anatomy in the Gallery” consists of pieces that stand as artworks in and of themselves, but that also happen to incorporate science, as opposed to serving as art that exists purely to record or demonstrate scientific history. These shows by working artists expand the role of art in the context of the museum, exploring the fluidity and interrelation between art and science. They are deeper and more relatable than a simple bust of a famed physician or mural of a groundbreaking surgery.
Says Thieman, “While our more didactic exhibits and educational programming provide straightforward information about these subjects from a supposedly objective point of view, the “Anatomy in the Gallery” exhibitions supplement them with another level or mode of information.”
There is a certain uncomfortable intimacy to the “Anatomy in the Gallery” shows. Current exhibits Chromatherapy by photographer Patrick Ryoichi Nagatani and Yew Tree Project by installation artist Carolyn Bernstein both provide a close-up view of the medical world and its professionals, patients and victims. Nagatani’s posed photographs explore the ancient concept of applying colored light to an ailment. His images capture the sterility of a group of doctors mid-conference and the vulnerability of patients mid-treatment. Bernstein contrasts the harshness of cancer treatment development with the sensitivity of patients being tested by overlapping professional documents (graphs, charts, etc.) with patient x-rays and the shadowlike shapes of human forms against the gallery walls in a medical-emotional collage.
The confrontational nature of “Anatomy in the Gallery” feels more overtly medical than its documentarian counterparts in the Hall of Murals. Thieman comments on this, stating “The contemporary art exhibitions relate more to the main surgical science collection, as a continuation of and commentary on the examples of medical visual culture on display.”
Nevertheless, there is a private connection between viewer and artist in the “Anatomy in the Gallery” works that does not exist when examining foreign medical objects, nor when viewing art created to chronicle history. In “Anatomy in the Gallery” art serves to bridge the gap between objective science and the introspective life of the observer.
The International Museum of Surgical Science is located at 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. Chromatherapy and Yew Tree Project will be on display until August 20.