Sensitive (t)issues: penis preparations then and now

The (human) reproductive organs long were a source of wonder for physicians: exactly how did they work? But answering this question required the dissection and preservation of reproductive organs in anatomical collections – a practice that for a long time no one seemed to be eager to contribute to. Anatomical dissection was not something people signed up for voluntarily until the twentieth century; in the Middel Ages it was considered an extra punishment on top of capital punishment, and having ones intimate parts displayed in an anatomical collection was not something people aspired to. Especially the study and collecting of female reproductive anatomy by male medical scholars was controversial in the early modern period – Katherine Park, Lucia Dacome and Rina Knoeff have written about this in the recent past.[1]

RCSHC/P 1386. A portion of a penis showing healed ulceration of the foreskin.1760 - 1793 Made by or for John Hunter.

RCSHC/P 1386. A portion of a penis showing healed ulceration of the foreskin.1760 – 1793 Made by or for John Hunter. Source: 

However, the study of male reproductive anatomy neither was – and is – without controversy. Darren Wagner is currently working on a thesis on the study of both male and female anatomy in the eighteenth century, and like Rina Knoeff, points out how genital preparations could affect an anatomist’s reputation in the eighteenth century. Yet genital preparations were essential for the study of reproduction, as can also be seen in the collection of the eighteenth-century London surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793), eighty preparations of organs of generation of both humans and animals can be found, these can be viewed online by searching for ‘penis’ and ‘Hunter’ in the museum database.

As Darren Wagner has also noticed, we are still not entirely comfortable with the study of reproductive organs – although it appears to me this discomfort is evoked in particular by preparations of human reproductive organs that are still recognizable as such. My guess is that very few people will blush or chuckle over a newspaper article on, say, new IVF techniques. Yet if it becomes more concrete, as it does in the documentary The Final Member, discomfort is lurking closer.

Film poster for 'The Final Member'

Film poster for ‘The Final Member’

This documentary follows the quest of Icelander Sigurður “Siggi” Hjartarson to obtain ‘the final member’ to complete his life work: the Icelandic Phallological Museum.  When the documentary was made, in 2012, the museum already housed an impressive array of mammalian members, from that of a field mouse to the colossal sperm whale. The film shows how shortly after one another, two voluntary donors offer their member for the collection. Both feel it would be a great honour to have their member preserved for eternity in Siggi’s museum. It is this attitude that is probably still most stunning to many viewers, and that would likely have been inconceivable to the involuntary eighteenth-century ‘donors’ to anatomical collections like those of John Hunter.

[1]Katherine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. New York: Zone Books, 2006.Lucia Dacome, ‘Women, Wax and Anatomy in the “Century of Things”’, Renaissance Studies, 21.4, (2007): 522–55. Rina Knoeff, ‘Sex in Public. On the Spectacle of Female Anatomy in Amsterdam around 1700.’ L’Homme. Europäische Zeitschrift für Feministische Geschichtswissenschaft. 23.1 (2012): 43-58.



How a bird of paradise finally ended up in the Prado

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Madrid to celebrate new year’s with some close friends. One of the best parts of my stay was a visit to the Prado museum, and particularly the ‘Natural Histories’ exhibition that is on until the end of April. This is not an exhibition in the conventional sense of the word; rather, it is an artistic project -or ‘artistic interventions’ as the creator calls them- throughout the museum by the Spanish artist Miguel Ángel Blanco.

Carlos III of Spain as a boy, painted by Jean Ranc, ca. 1724. Museo del Prado, Spain, Num. de catálogo: P02334.

Carlos III of Spain as a boy, painted by Jean Ranc, ca. 1724. Museo del Prado, Spain, Num. de catálogo: P02334.

What many visitors usually do not realize is that the Prado was originally designed to house a natural history collection. The idea for the new museum was conceived by the Spanish king Carlos III (1716-1788), an enlightened ruler who amassed a great collection of art and natural history during his life. Important parts of this collection were brought together by two men hardly known outside their respective countries: the Spanish naturalist Pedro Franco Dávila (1711-1786), who was born in and travelled extensively throughout Spanish South America, and the Dutch naturalist Johannes le Francq van Berkhey (1729-1812). The latter reluctantly sold his collection to Carlos in 1785 after his political views had compromised his income.

The Prado building was designed in in the same year, but by the time it was finished Carlos had died and his grandson decided to turn the building into the first public art museum in Spain. It opened in 1819, and never housed a collection of natural history. Carlos’ natural history collection remained in what he had originally intended as contemporary housing, the Real Gabinete de Historia Natural. The collections of this cabinet eventually developed into three other museums: the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional and the Museo de América. Blanco chose the objects for his project from their collections, and those of the Apothecary Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Satanic invocation (Room 67). Photo: Pedro Albornoz/Museo Nacional del Prado.

Satanic invocation (Room 67). Photo: Pedro Albornoz/Museo Nacional del Prado.

Now, for the first time since the eighteenth century, a small part of the royal natural history collections and the royal art collections are reunited at the Prado, and it works amazingly well. Instead of creating a separate exhibition space, the objects Blanco has chosen are placed throughout the museum, and paired with paintings and sculptures. The skeleton of a snake rests in front of Dürer’s paintings of Adam and Eve, a stuffed bird of paradise sits next to Frans Snyder’s Concert of Birds and apothecary bottles filled with snakes and toads, as well as a piece of sulphur, lie in front of Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath.

This way of bringing together art and nature works so well for several reasons. First, it reflects historical events and processes, and in way it posthumously fulfills king Carlos’s dream of a grand museum for his natural history collection. Second, as the objects chosen by Blanco are spread throughout the museum, all visitors are automatically engaged in the project at some point. As I noticed while wandering through the museum, initial confusion about the presence of natural history objects in an art museum soon dissolved in in wonder and enthusiasm with many visitors. The objects make them look at the paintings and sculptures differently, as they raise questions of and give well-dosed information about the shared history of the Prado, the art works, and the natural history objects.

In an interview with the New York Times about the project, Blanco mentions that this kind of exhibition is a relatively cheap solution to presenting existing collections in novel ways. If this is the kind of creativity that austerity evokes in the cultural sector, the future of historical collections is bright.

Natural Histories‘ until 27 April 2014, Museum del Prado, Madrid.

Additional source:

Miguel Ángel Blanco, “La llamada del ave del Paraíso,” in Historias Naturales, Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2013, p. 13-20.