4B - Thursday, September 20, 2012
The Michigan Daily - michigandailycom
4B - Thursday, September 20, 2012 The Michigan Daily - michigandailycom
From Page 1B
Interpreting the image
In the five years since the Uni-
versity acquired Thom's Great
Moments in Medicine, Gifts of
Art Director Elaine Sims has been
busy, as she described it, "finding
homes" for the 45 paintings. Her
two main concerns were security
of the artwork - achievedbypro-
tective museum glass and a lock-
ing system that mounts art to the
wall - and how to install the art
throughout the medical campus
in a meaningful way.
Because the series was gifted
to the UMHS, it was intended to
be put on display for the public
within that environment. Sims
described the difficulties of hang-
ing public art, especially in a hos-
"It's always a challenge," she
said, "Because in a hospital, art
has a job to do. It can't just sit on
the wall and look pretty ... You
have no idea what people are
experiencing as they're going
through (the halls). As many as
10,000 people a day walk by any
piece of artwork and they have to
understand it immediately, they
can't work at it. It's not a moment
to educate or cause discomfort."
Working through the chal-
lenges a hospital environment
can create, Sims installed 11 of
Thom's Great Moments in Medi-
cine paintings on the walls of the
UMHS, including some at the
facility's main entrance and more
near the Ford Amphitheater.
Paintings from the series that
might alarm hospital patients
were hung elsewhere. Fifteen
were placed on the second floor
of the Taubman Health Sciences
Library and, as Sims noted, the
most iconic (and bloody) pieces
were hung outside the South
Lecture Hall in Medical Sci-
ence Building II. This decision
was made so that the medical
students using this lecture hall
would be able to interact with the
However, medical students
aren't the only ones to observe
or is it
s Great Moments in Medi- forget they're paintings and feel
ries. Howell, who teaches that you're actually there."
y 234, "History of Medi- From a purely artistic
the Western World from approach, Sims believes Thom
h Century to the Present," accomplished thatgoal.
ken undergraduates to view "They're very evocative - the
intings hanging in Medical colors, the composition, the exot-
e Building II. icness of many of them," she said.
you want to understand the "They just seem to draw people
y of health care, they're in."
nportant resource," he McNamara remembers her
ned. "They're an important father, a surgeon, hanging repro-
ce for stimulating discus- ductions of Thom's work in his
out the events they depict. office. She described the paint-
more importantly, they're ings as having "a documentary
of helping us think about quality to them."
e conceptualize history." "They don't aggregate towards
cell asks his students to a single narrative. Each is a sepa-
critically at images like rate moment," she said. "As such,
pining in Ancient Peru." they're tiles in a mosaic. Indi-
nts them to ask questions vidually they may be beautiful
the art: Can history be objects or interesting objects, and
It of as "great moments," depending on how the tiles in a
more accurate to consider mosaic are arranged, they may or
s of underlying change? may not configure a final narra-
rmore, what biases are tive moment."
nt in the artwork and how But all documentaries, no mat-
se viewpoints impact an ter how rich in detail and factual-
tanding of history? ly straightforward, are inherently
ey're useful for reminding biased in countless ways. Though
t history is always writ- Thom researched each painting
the present," Howell said. to the most minute detail and
e they were intended to wanted each scene to be histori-
historical events as they cally accurate, Sims explained
ly happened, they were that Thom used his wife, children
embedded in the culture and neighbors to pose as a diver-
ch they were created. How sity of famous individuals from
t be otherwise?" a multitude of cultures and eras.
Duffin and Li argued that this
Tiles in a mosaic decision could hardly be consid-
ered as factually accurate.
ording to Duffin and Li, Thom himself was concerned
Davis & Co. spared no with his work being timeless.
e in the creation of the "Twenty years from now peo-
Moments in Medicine and ple will forget the paintings were
Moments in Pharmacy done today," he said, again in Duf-
Exhaustive, detail-orient- fin and Li's article. "They must be
earch was conducted for done right. I have a tremendous
painting. Specialists were power to transport the viewer.
ted, sets and costumes But I have the same power to mis-
onstructed and Thom trav- lead."
Europe twice during the Duffin and Li also posited that
s to ensure the highest Thom, who was painting the
f accuracy. series during the 1950s and '60s,
u can't fake history," Thom was biased by the social norms
ited in Duffin and Li's of his time, especially in his por-
"You have to know how trayal of women and minorities.
lived, what they wore, The women are rarely active in
hysical surroundings, the the paintings, and seem to be
cture and furniture of the included simply for aesthetic
he tools of the physicians enhancement of the art.
e house-hold implements ... As for Thom's portrayal of
ponsibility is to make you minorities, two paintings of the
COURTESY OF GIFTS OF ART
Images from Robert Thom's series depict medical practices from all around the world.
Great Moments in Medicine
series are seen as especially mis-
leading: "Primitive Medicine"
and "J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic
Surgeon." The first depicts a top-
less Native American woman
being healed within a wooden
structure, surrounded by mem-
bers of her community. Though
nothing about the painting seems
"primitive," Thom problemati-
cally titled this artwork as such.
The second depicts J. Marion
Sims - known as the father of
American gynecology - and two
white men surrounding an Afri-
can American woman perched on
a table, while two African Ameri-
can women watch from behind a
curtain. The scene is supposed to
celebrate Sims' cure of vesicovag-
inal fistula, a condition women
experience during traumatic
labor. This piece fails to reflect,
however, that Sims was only able
to make his discovery due to fre-
quent human experimentation on
Neither of these paintings are
currently on display.
As Sims explained, she is
searching for "a place where peo-
ple are prepared to see something
like that and have a discussion."
Until then, they will remain in
the University of Michigan Muse-
um of Art's storage facility.
For Howell, these biases and
prejudices are an important angle
to study and think about in terms
of the history of medicine, and
how that history is written.
"They depicted an image of
medicine and an idea of medicine
that has already passed," How-
ell said. "These paintings show
doctors as deities, almost - who
you might want to be if you were
a medical student or deeply want
to be cared for by if you were a
"They're a snapshot of how, at
a particular time and a particu-
lar place, this was the history of
medicine," he added. "We are not
at that time or place anymore,
and if we were to hire someone to
depict the history of medicine, it
would look very different."
Always looking back
In spite of the potentially
controversial nature of some of
Thom's works, Sims maintains
that the art remains extremely
popular. She continues to receive
requests for use of the images in
publications and to tour the col-
Perhaps this lingering affec-
tion for Robert Thom and his
Great Moments in Medicine
series is because, to the gen-
eration that grew up with them,
they are, as Sims described, "old
"They mean different things to
different people," Kelch said. "To
medical students, I hope that they
give them a sense of where medi-
cine was and how far we've come.
And also, how little we know
today. There's so much more to
learn. For the public, I hope it
gives them a sense of the tremen-
dous change that has occurred."
"We have a way of repeating
ourselves," he added. "Hopefully
by learning about history this
way and studying the past, we can
be more- modest, more humble
and better physicians."