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Biomedicine in museums

Mannequins in museums — their present use, aesthetic reactions and history

By December 2, 2012No Comments

Until recently I thought the use of mannequins in museums was an almost extinct species of exhibition design.

We removed the last mannequins from Medical Museion’s public exhibitions more than a decade ago and have only kept two of them in the staff area for the fun of scaring the shit out of new employees and visiting researchers.

But now that curators Bente Vinge Pedersen and Daniel Noesgaard got the excellent idea of using our remaining mannequins as silent actors in a 24 day long Yuelemedicalendar drama, my curiosity about mannequins (or manikins as they are sometimes spelt) was raised. Are there any serious museums that still use them?

A rapid web search resulted in some interesting mannequin images. The very first website I opened — that of the Danish Museum of Nursing History —  actually presents a series of good-looking mannequins on the frontpage.

After an hour’s browsing of images of museum mannequins I realised I have to revise my prejudice. Turns out that mannequins still loom large in the museum world, and that there are companies, like this one, that produce and sell them.

And for some reason it looks like “France has a thing for putting glorious creepy mannequins in museums”. (Can anyone confirm this? Or does it just reflect a prejudice that French museums are backward, designwise?)

Even museums who don’t use them for display purposes are apparently fascinated by having them in their collections, like the Chicago History Museum and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery:

Mannequin morgue in the Chicago History Museum

Mannequins in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The aesthetic response to mannequins differ quite a lot. Since so many museums still use them in displays and keep them in storage, there must be quite a few visitors and curators that like them. Most casual commentators on the web dislike them, however. A common complaint is that they look too scary: “there is one thing that I have a fairly irrational fear about and that is mannequins in museums and displays”, writes a commentator. “Creepy things that pretend to be real, but don’t really look real, like mannequins in museums, creep me out”, writes another.

I cannot make up my mind as to whether they are just terrible or alluringly retro-chic. Bente and Daniel probably have the same ambiguous feeling about them (I haven’t asked them yet), because why should they otherwise use them as props for a whole Yulemedicalender (in spite of what they say, it’s not an advent calendar, because there is nothing religious about it).

Second question: When were these creepy monsters introduced in museums? I haven’t found any historical account of the use of mannequins (manikins) in exhibitions. Can anyone help me out here?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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