Taking advantage of the inability to create in-person exhibits, a new digital exhibition called “Materiality, Fragility, and Loss in the Medical Archive” focuses on fragile materials that cannot be appreciated in person.
The exhibition, hosted by the Yale Medical Historical Library and curated by doctoral candidate Anabelle Gambert-Jouan GRD ’21, showcases a variety of art, medical study materials, artifacts, books and photographs. Melissa Grafe, head of the Medical Historical Library, said the exhibition’s online format will allow curators to keep adding new materials to the website.
“This whole COVID thing has really pushed us all into this other world of Zoom in a steroid kind of way,” said Terry Dagradi, the Cushing Center coordinator and photographer for the exhibition. “But I think in this exhibit, it’s really the perfect format.”
The exhibition includes delicate materials that must be visually manipulated for viewers to appreciate them as intended. The online format presents the perfect opportunity to showcase such materials. For example, featured in the section titled “Tactility and Fragility of Movable Artifacts” are early modern European “lift-the-flap” anatomical images. These are composed of several layers of thin paper with detailed drawings of musculature, bones, veins and arteries. Grafe noted that because the images are susceptible to damage — especially when their various flaps are lifted — they can be best admired digitally.
“You’re just teasing people if you put them in glass cases and don’t allow people to engage with them,” Grafe said.
Additionally, the section also includes tiny human manikins which are too small to see through a glass case. On the digital exhibition, viewers can access high-resolution images of the figurines to reveal details they may not have noticed otherwise.
The exhibition also contains videos that allow viewers to understand materials in motion, which both Dagradi and Grafe said greatly enhances the exhibition. For example, one book holds in its pages a neoclassical painting of a cityscape, which, in an in-person exhibit, can only be seen when the pages are pressed firmly down.
The second section of the exhibit contains pieces that are in the process of decay. Dagradi’s photographs of old photo negatives and disintegrating books populate this section. “The paper is eating itself alive — I mean its acid,” said Grafe, describing a photograph of a crumbling book.
Another book in the exhibit, a 14th-century Herbal, contains 16 full-page paintings of plants. The green pigment used to color the pages of plants has seeped through the paper, while another pigment used in the same text has eaten through the paper.
According to Grafe, the exhibition’s digital format both brings otherwise-hidden materials to the public eye and allows materials to remain on view for a longer time period than in physical displays. Typically, materials are displayed in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library’s rotunda, where UV light from a skylight can potentially damage materials. Similar exhibits usually last for three to four months in physical showings.
“It’s a much longer physical life online,” Grafe said.
Gambert-Jouan added that the exhibition’s format makes it more accessible to the public, since the rotunda lies within the School of Medicine and can be hard to find. Grafe hopes that this way, the exhibition will reach students — particularly high schoolers — across the country.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity to continue to engage with our community here in New Haven,” Grafe said. “To develop more exhibits that work with both the Yale collections and curriculum [as well as] the interests of the larger community.”
Coming to Yale on March 4 is “Community in a Time of Crisis: Yale, New Haven, and HIV/AIDS, 1981-1996,” a physical and online exhibit that deals with the AIDS crisis in New Haven.
Annie Radillo | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Feb. 12: The story has been updated to reflect that Gambert-Jouan is a doctoral candidate, not a postdoctoral candidate.