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Unfamiliar: a new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians

Rebecca Wallersteiner visits Unfamiliar a new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians (23rd January – 28th July) which takes a fresh look at their archives through the eyes of a photographer and a physician and presents clinical instruments as you’ve never seen them before, ranging from King Henry VIII’s time until the present day.

An exciting new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians from 23rd January 2023 brings together the contrasting worlds of medicine and art to reinterpret historic clinical tools from the museum’s archives in an entrancing new light. Together photographer Theo Deproost and physician associate Debbie Jegede have chosen unusual objects from the museum’s clinical and fine arts collections which capture their imagination. These seemingly inanimate objects ranging from stethoscopes to snuff boxes have been transformed through photography to highlight their hidden richness and beauty. Co-curator Debbie Jegede says, “It has been an eye-opening and exciting project working alongside Theo to bring together the clinical mind and creative skills. I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole process from selecting the objects to observing the hard work that goes into taking the photos and the editing. Theo has captured the objects so that we can see them from a different viewpoint and I think the final results are quite impressive!”

The original historic clinical tools from the museum’s archives are displayed alongside their blown-up and vividly coloured images. Photographer and co-curator Theo Deproost said: “Unfamiliar has been a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable project to work on – I have photographed museum collections before, but the collaborative contributions from physician associate Debbie Jegede and senior curator Lowri Jones have added so much depth and clarity to the final outcome. The images honour the historical significance of the objects whilst also transporting them to a realm beyond any specific time period; a new, undefined space for the viewer to study and re-interpret the items, based on individual associations and experiences.”

Photographer Deproost’s favourite object in the exhibition, owing to its ‘organic shape’ is ‘a syphoned glass nasal inhaler with silver caps, which was manufactured in the UHS around 1880’. This glass inhaler may have been used in the home for self-care remedies such as decongestants. Transformed into an artwork by Deproost, in lively, bright colour and ballooned in size, it takes on an almost surreal aspect which no doubt have been appreciated by Salvador Dali, had he lived to see it.

Theo Deproost

In contrast Jegede’s favourite exhibit is an early 19th century rosewood stethoscope, used to diagnose cardiovascular disease. Although by today’s standards it looks very primitive Jegede explains that ‘it is based on a recognisably similar concept to the stethoscope’ she presently uses every day in her clinical work.

Another quirky highlight in the exhibition is a facemask, developed by Dr John Snow (1813-58) and manufactured in London in 1847 from copper, rubber, brass, lead and wood. An English doctor, Snow led the early developments of anaesthetics. This facemask and breathing tube and apparatus were used to administer the anaesthetic drug ether. Snow had observed the success rates of using ether during operations were variable. His inhaler was designed to regulate the temperature and concentration of ether used resulting in a more effective anaesthesia.

My personal favourite exhibits are a beautiful silver 19th century snuffbox depicting a battle between figures on horseback and a finely carved cane. Eighteenth century doctors could be spotted from a distance because they carried a cane. Often these canes would conceal snuff, whisky, or sweet-smelling herbs. Sniffing sweet-smelling herbs was believed to ward off disease, which was spread by miasma (bad air) or bad odours. As sewage oozed along through the streets of many eighteenth century English cities, before the Victorians built an effective sewage system, the herbs could come in useful.

Audiences will be invited to approach the objects and images with a curious mind, to experience them in unexpected ways and reinterpret them through the lens of their own experiences. It is an imaginative collaboration between the arts and sciences.

Lowri Jones, senior curator of the Royal College of Physicians Museum, said: “This exhibition presents something very different for the RCP Museum. While it still has the RCP collections at its core, the exhibition itself will look strikingly unlike our other, recent exhibitions, showcasing vibrant, detailed new artworks developed from collection items that would not otherwise be on display. I’m very excited to show the results of what the project team has been working on – being able to bring together co-curators Debbie and Theo’s contrasting medical and artistic backgrounds has been fascinating and demonstrates how effective collaborations between the arts and sciences can be. I invite you to come and visit (online or in person); to look closely, approach familiar items differently, and experience the RCP collections in a whole new way.”

Founded in 1518 by King Henry VIII, the Royal College of Physicians’ archive holds precious and rare books and manuscripts dating back to the thirteenth century.

Debbie Jegede is a lead physician associate in the Emergency Medicine Department at Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust and is a member of the Royal College of Physicians’ Diversity and Inclusion Delivery Group.
Theo Deproost is a fine art and commercial photographer, based in Stroud.

‘Unfamiliar’ is showing from 23rd January – 28th July 2023 at the Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, London NW1 4LE

FREE ENTRY to the exhibition

A series of in person, online and hybrid events accompany the exhibition:

  • Wednesday 8 February, Museum Late
  • Thursday 2 March, Museum Late
  • Tuesday 14 March, Virtual exhibition talk – a curator’s view
  • Thursday 6 April, Museum Late
  • Thursday 4 May, Museum Late
  • Thursday 1 June, Museum Late
  • Wednesday 14 June, Photography workshop with Theo Deproost
  • Thursday 6 July, Museum Late
Rebecca Wallersteiner

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