This blog reflects on my impressions ranging from disgust to respect in the Medical Museum of Copenhagen when exploring history and cultural well-being on the study trip with CRASH Master´s students of Metropolia. “The Body Collected” exhibition in the Medicinsk Museion presented the body parts collected from the 18th century to the present. The newest exhibits include dnas, cells and biopsies from bio banks, and the older ones were body parts, deformed foetuses, bones, skeletons, organs, tumours, lungs and so on.
Visit to museum in a study trip to Copenhagen
I took the stairs down to see the Indsamlade Menneske (“The Body Collected”) exhibition. The first element catching my eye was a full-term foetus in her mother’s womb. The birth had been obstructed due to the placenta being attached to other tissues and thus blocking the way out. I could clearly see the baby’s face, hair, finger nails, all the possibilities of a new person being born.
And why can I explore these samples, which were collected up to 200 years ago? It made me think if it is ethical to present these now? and what kind of ethical questions existed 200 years ago?
Asking questions is a relevant part of ethics
I can only imagine what has happened to the mother since her body was left in the hospital. Family might have been poor, or the mother was ill, or she might have gotten pregnant by the wrong man, or without being married. No matter what was the reason, their bodies were left to science, because no one paid the hospital fees and did not collect their corpses for burial; and this is how surgeons learnt the anatomy of the human body and learnt to practise their profession. This was also the way, ethical or unethical, how hospitals operated, and this is how medical science developed.
I noticed a lot of unpleasant emotions and thoughts rising in my mind during this visit to the museum. Should I watch these at all? Can I be interested in the anatomy of a human, when it is presented via dead human beings and surely without consent? How many of the human rights and the laws are violated by portraying deceased person’s body parts? I do not have answers to these questions. I can only understand the history from the perspective of my time. This all seems so unethical considering modern time values and guidelines and legislation.
From disgust to respect
I continued my tour of the exhibition. Slowly, my disgust started to melt down. First, my emotion changed to wonder and interest, then to curiosity and finally to huge respect. It really hit me deeply. I realised that we would not have modern medicine without these scientists. They had the courage to explore human bodies in this way and teach the next generations by exploring these samples. It is way too easy to judge them with today’s ethical criteria and standards. Before these samples, the physicians were trained by exploring animal bodies. But we all can see the difference in the accuracy comparing, for example, the humans’ and the pigs’ anatomy. How many of us would be alive without the development and the research of these earlier generations?
The driving motive behind these actions and modern science is nevertheless exactly the same, human’s need to learn, explore, develop, and they have the scientific enthusiasm. All these, of course, in addition to the influence of such much more down-to-earth factors as professional competition, need for funding, reputational considerations, personal ambitions, etc. just like nowadays.
Later in the exhibition, I noticed that the museum had a separate room for ethical questions. They pondered on the same questions as I did. They asked from the audience if it is ethically bearable to have these collections presented to the public. The visitors’ answers varied from absolute “no” to “yes, of course”. My opinion swung to acceptance during the 30 minutes I spent watching these beautiful and remarkable samples.
What did I learn from ethics?
My main learning point was very simple and yet quite revolutionary on a deeper personal level. This experience touched on my physical body, my emotions, my thoughts and my biases. I felt my judgement and the resistance were melting away. My conclusion was that it is not fair to interpret history with current values and criteria.
Who am I to say 200 years later that those actions were unethical? I felt that seeing the exhibition offered me a mindset change. I understood the proportionality of ethics, and how all actions need to be evaluated related to that time and place when these actions happened with their participants.
How will this insight and experience influence me?
How can I generalise this insight to a wider level? I came up with the following reflections from my part.
What is ethical at this, modern time? What is ethical in our society and community? What are our values? In politics, values change every four years with the new elections, at least partly. Then, how about science? If science is based on our current understanding and knowledge, how should I think of what happened 20 years ago, and how will it be in 200 years to come?
I can only come to the conclusion that ethics and our understanding of ethics needs to be re-evaluated and it transforms constantly. And yes, historical structures need to be dismantled, like the colonisation and the patriarchy. We need to be prepared to ask difficult and unpleasant questions, and see those unbearable painful injustices that happened in our society. Similarly, we will be embarrassed and judged by future generations for the actions of today. But without stepping into the unknown areas and taking risks, there is no development, no creativity, and no new insights. It is for the future generations to judge us.
So, be fearless! Be the future-maker and take actions based on the values and ethics of our time and our understanding! Like Sanna Marin, the Prime Minister of Finland, encouraged us all to do in her speech at the New York University’s Commencement 17.5.2023 where she was recognized for her own courage.
Similarly, we need to honour those who were before us and our time. They did their very best with all the understanding, the experience and the knowledge they had. Let’s consider their work and actions with respect and learn from them. It sends a clear message to our generation: be bold to change and yet honour the history!
Why am I writing this?
I’m one of the hope-holders for the future. I believe in the good in human beings. I see it in people’s willingness to respect our future by finding the ways to save our nature and planet. They try their best to find a harmonious and sustainable way of living with other living organisms on earth.
So, what does this have to do with my experience in the Medical Museumn? I believe, it is exactly the same. Our enthusiasm is to learn, know, understand, develop, cure, find solutions, and ground them to the solid base of science, rather than contribute to prejudice of randomness. We strive to mix the knowledge and experiences with creativity to generate something new. We have the courage for new approaches, the tolerance of not knowing, but exploring constantly, and we have the attitude of respecting others and capacity to empathy; the ability to use our instincts and heart among the scientific knowledge.
When wandering in the exhibition, I connected to those persons and their imaginary stories, not only their collected body parts in the exhibition. Those persons have a meaning even hundreds of years after their death. They help me to understand the core of ethics, develop my professional and personal thinking, and ground my own life actions more on respect. In short, I have had inspirational moments with ethical questions in my life, work, studies and research! and I encourage you to do the same.
About the writer
Hanne Aura is a student in CRASH, Master’s Programme in Creativity and Arts in Social and Health Fields. She has a work history over 30 years, in such roles as nursing in psychiatric care, as a nursing expert and counsellor, as a specialist in social and health care data system development, as a key account manager, and as a therapeutic worker utilising embodiment and other creative approaches. Presently, she is a practitioner and student of the counsellor of Systemic Constellation.
Medicinsk Museion (2023). Medical Museion of København Universitet, Copenhagen. Web-site of the museum: https://www.museion.ku.dk/en/forside/
The Body Collected: Exhibition (2023). Medical Museion of København Universitet, Copenhagen. Web-site of the exhibition: https://www.museion.ku.dk/en/the-body-collected/ Also available as a virtual tour: https://www.museion.ku.dk/en/product/the-body-collected-en/
Speech by Prime Minister Sanna Marin at the New York University commencement on 17 May 2023. Prime Minister´s office (17.5.2023). https://vnk.fi/en/-/speech-by-prime-minister-sanna-marin-at-the-new-york-university-s-commencement-17.5.2023