Women and medicinal knowledge
There was one additional thorny element to wrangle with: the lack of women’s voices in medical history collections. “The anatomical maps in our collections, such as The Ayurvedic Man, are mostly based on male anatomy, unless it deals with pregnancy or birth. Even erotic manuals were primarily directed at the male ruling classes,” says Rodriguez Muñoz.
A section in the exhibition is dedicated to acknowledging this void – along with the patently gendered title of the show. One of the jewels here is a beguiling Kalighat painting depicting a woman and, well, some aubergines. If this sounds prosaic, that’s because – on one level, at least – it is. Rodriguez Muñoz says she chose to include the image because “aubergines are used in Indian kitchens to treat conditions such as inflammation, fever and general weakness.”
Yet there’s a more profound message to be gleaned, too. “I wanted to stress how a great deal of this medicinal knowledge is domestic, as opposed to codified or professionalised, and has been used by women for generations,” she explains.
Aside from the rich symbolism of aubergines, what are the nuances of the exhibition you might miss if you don’t look closely? The material is “extremely detailed, delicate and beautiful,” says Rodriguez Muñoz. “We display Tibetan manuscripts depicting animals and goddesses, along with South Asian anatomical maps charting emotions, blockages, chakras and metaphysical energies.”
The letters, she says, also “need some time to sink in”. Written by male academic professionals of the era, they employ imperialist expressions shot through with contempt towards other cultures. But this is revealing, the curator insists. “Through their anecdotes and wording they unpack the power structures existing at the time – and how they play out in medicine, culture and gender.”
There’s plenty of time to mull over intricacies such as multilingual ancient manuscripts, or Henry Wellcome’s stern annotations on Thompson and Mall’s correspondence, because the show’s layout enables visitors to get up close and personal with the exhibits.
Exhibition 3D designer Andres Ros Soto devised freestanding panels so that the material could be displayed vertically, which enables intimate engagement. He also came up with the exhibition flooring. This was inspired by traditional weaving techniques but used contemporary materials – recycled plastics – to avoid “falling into any gimmicky aesthetics,” as Rodriguez Muñoz puts it. These were offset by vibrant blue walls that reference Lapis lazuli, a gemstone revered for its healing power in certain strands of Ayurveda, along with a typography inspired by Sanskrit manuscripts conceived by the graphic design studio HATO.