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Exquisite Bodies


30 July 2009 - 18 October 2009

In the 19th century, despite the best efforts of body snatchers, the demand from medical schools for fresh cadavers far outstripped the supply. One solution to this gruesome problem came in the form of lifelike wax models. These models often took the form of alluring female figures that could be stripped and split into different sections. Other models were more macabre, showing the body ravaged by 'social diseases' such as venereal disease, tuberculosis and alcohol and drug addiction.

With their capacity to titillate as well as educate, anatomical models became sought-after curiosities, displayed not only in dissecting rooms but also in sideshows and the curiosity cabinets of wealthy Victorian gentlemen. For a small admission fee, visitors seeking an unusual afternoon's entertainment could visit displays of these strange dolls in London, Paris, Brussels and Barcelona.

This exhibition explores the forgotten history of the anatomical model, which with its unique combination of serious science and fairground horror provides a rare insight into 19th-century beliefs about the body.

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During the 19th century, museums of anatomical models became popular with Europeans seeking an unusual afternoon's entertainment.

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Anatomical exhibitions were often used to communicate information about the 'social diseases' of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Accurate representations of the body were required to accompany the institution of anatomy lessons at major European medical universities.

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Around 1900, a waxworks museum was established in the heart of Barcelona's red-light district.

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Anatomical Venus

'Anatomical Venuses' are extremely realistic models of idealised women. These figures consist of removable parts that can be 'dissected' - a breast plate is lifted to reveal the internal organs, often with a fetus in the womb.