Art and Artifacts Revealing Bodies
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Art & Artifacts by Rosamond Purcell. page 1 of 4

Artist/Photographer Rosamond Purcell takes us behind the scenes and deep into the collections of medical and natural history museums.

47 Needles

Detail of '47 Needles'. Photograph by Rosamond Purcell, © 2000. Click for the larger, full image.

47 Needles

When you see artifacts in medical museums, do you ever wonder what they have to do with the human body? Just by looking at this unremarkable exhibit, I would certainly not have been able to imagine its history.

These 47 needles, or more precisely, straight pins, come from the collection of the Warren Museum at the Harvard Medical School. They are meticulously mounted on a piece of paper, threaded in and out of the rows and carefully aligned. The paper has turned brown from the rust leaching out of the pins.

According to the display's label, the pins were removed from the body of an insane woman, both periodically during her life and after her death. At some point, the label says, the woman had been given morphine for her suffering. The experience of being injected with a substance that had, however briefly, relieved her anguish, might have encouraged her to continue pricking herself as she imagined, or at least hoped for, relief from her pain. Or perhaps she just wanted to feel something, and the pins perversely comforted her.

Notice that the pins are carefully arranged, the way a seamstress might neatly put her needles away. This civilized arrangement cannot possibly reflect a lifetime of suffering.


When we first started imagining what the Revealing Bodies exhibition could be, I was given a copy of Suspended Animation, a book written by F.Gonzalez-Crussi and illustrated with the photographs of Rosamond Purcell.

I was captured by the clarity of Rosamond's vision. Her work illuminated subtle details that would normally be lost. Images of even the tiniest things revealed both the weight of history and profound moral dilemmas. I saw museum objects not as dead things from the past, but as mirrors reflecting how we arrived at our current condition. It profoundly influenced how we developed our exhibition.

In a world saturated with visual images, Rosamond's way of observing is one of active participation--an experience of heightened noticing. Her photographs are all stunningly beautiful, but they can also be jarring, challenging us to look at and think about bodies in their most vulnerable and fragile states.

We invited Rosamond to the Exploratorium, and in the weeks she spent here she became a muse for us. She inspired our vision and connected us to her world of artists, including Scott Serrano and Elizabeth King, who have both contributed to the show.

We have four of Rosamond's photographs in the exhibition and six more on this Web site. We invited her to select the images here and tell us the stories behind each one. We hope you enjoy this virtual tour of Rosamond Purcell's work.

— Melissa Alexander
Project Director, Revealing Bodies

  Revealing Bodies © Exploratorium

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