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Systems of display: the making of anatomical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain


Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century anatomy depended upon a variety of visual displays. Drawings in books, particularly expensive, beautiful and elaborately illustrated books that have been the objects of historians' fascination, were understood to function alongside chalk drawings done in classrooms, casual and formalized experience with animal and human corpses, text describing or contextualizing the images, and preserved specimens. This article argues that British anatomists of the late Enlightenment discovered and taught an intelligible, orderly Nature through comprehensive systems of display. These systems trained vision, and, taken as a whole, they can be used to understand a visual culture of science. Displays helped anatomists, artists and natural philosophers learn to see both the tiniest and the rarest of parts and an overall general plan of anatomy and relationship of parts. Each type of display was materially different from the others and each served to perfect human vision for a group of natural philosophers who valued sensory experience – primarily that of vision, but also that of touch – as the basis of learning. Together, these displays allowed the anatomist to see, in all of its dimensions, human nature, frozen in the ordered and unstressed state of fresh death, a comprehensible guide to life and its functions. A pedagogical context of use defined and bound such displays together as complementary parts of a unified project. A system of display stood in for Nature and at the same time represented her ordering by anatomists.

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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