HHH column: The importance of tracing objects by Mieneke te Hennepe

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, Joris Vandendriessche, post-doc researcher at KU Leuven, passed the column on to Mieneke te Hennepe, curator medical collections at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave and assistant professor at Leiden University Medical Center.

Mieneke te Hennepe

In the showcase lies a man. His eyes closed, his nose marked by the onset of leprosy. He is there to be seen, but there is no audience. It is January, 2021, and the exhibition in which he is displayed is closed. Outside the glass case a pandemic changes the world.

Wax cast of man's face

Medical moulage ‘Lepra tuberosa’, E. Lipmann 1921. Image: Rijksmuseum Boerhaave

The wax cast of the man’s face was made one hundred years ago in the atelier of mouleur Ella Lipmann. Between 1912 and 1959 Lipmann was head mouleuse of the workshop of the Pathoplastisches Institut in Dresden, where she led a team of ten assistants. Carefully copied from a living man with early-onset leprosy, poured in wax and coloured in the atelier, the wax figure was intended as a medical moulage for public education. Most moulages from Lipmann’s studio found their way into the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden. But not this moulage.

The wax cast travelled to the Netherlands, to the hands of Paul Christiaan Flu, a leading tropical physician and professor of Tropical Hygiene at Leiden University. Flu had a collection of moulages set up for teaching at the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Rapenburg 33 in Leiden. Visitors and patients could see the moulages during their visit to the outpatient clinic. The wax man was probably among them.

Many original moulages at the Deutsches Hygiene Museum were destroyed in the Dresden bombings of 1945. Fortunately, the leprosy moulage was left untouched, as it was safe in Leiden. After the Second World War, wax moulages slowly lost their function in medical education. That was how a collection of moulages, including this one, ended up in the collections of Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. Because the wax mixture of moulages becomes brittle over time, they are prone to cracking, sometimes revealing the cast layers. In preparation of the 2020 exhibition Besmet!, the moulage was restored by expert wax restorer Johanna Lang. And now there he lies, all cleaned up and ready for new eyes to admire, investigate and learn. Watching the wax moulages during this unraveling pandemic provides an almost tangible encounter with past patients suffering from infectious diseases.

Medical objects evoke past worlds in tangible ways. By feeling and experiencing objects, engaging with their materiality and their history, we can learn about these worlds in new ways. Museum experts and historians can contribute to the debate on today’s pressing matters by exploring the histories of these objects to imagine their past and by letting new, diverse audiences interact with them. As a curator and assistant professor I do this by setting up new international collaborations between medical museums worldwide, by contributing to research projects, using objects in teaching, writing about them (for example in Besmet!), and by making topical exhibitions with objects.

You are warmly invited to contact me for any form of collaboration on the material culture of medicine. And we hope to be able to welcome you back soon in Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. In the meantime, please enjoy our online lecture series and rich podcasts.

Mieneke te Hennepe is curator of medical collections at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden, the Dutch national museum for the history of science and medicine. She is also assistant professor at Leiden University Medical Center, where she teaches medical history. She recently curated the exhibition Besmet!, about past and present outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Mieneke passes the pen on to Noortje Jacobs, researcher at Erasmus MC – University Medical Center Rotterdam.