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Skeletons in the cabinet and the Grand Tour of anatomy

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Human anatomy has typically been discussed in one of two ways. First, within the medical tradition, as a subject whose mastery was a requirement to practice medicine. Second, as a messy, impolite pursuit unfit for public consumption. This talk offers a third way by situating human anatomy within regimes of early modern natural history knowledge production and display. It argues that the activities of creating, collecting, preserving, displaying, handling, and appreciating anatomical curiosities contributed to the taste for anatomy as a public science, the social profile of the anatomist, and the completion of a gentleman’s education. To do so, this paper develops the concept of the ‘anatomy cabinet’ as the space where anatomists, natural history collectors, and curious travellers encountered anatomy in a variety of material and notional forms. It designates the ‘anatomy cabinet’ as the site where anatomical knowledge was created, packaged, collected, and dispensed as part of the sociable and worldly ‘Grand Tour of Anatomy’, which is presented as a variation of the educational journey that brought enlightened travellers from Paris to the rest of Europe and back again. It charts how gentlemen connoisseurs acquired and arranged specimens like skeletons and travelled to experience the cabinets of Europe’s great anatomists. Finally, it demonstrates how 18th-century anatomy was as much the messy, morally dubious activity of dissecting bodies as preserving and reproducing them in new forms for polite display and consumption.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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