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Re-Homing Schetky - Housing and Digitising our Art Collection

Earlier this year, Surgeons Hall Museums embarked on a year-long project entitled ‘Re-homing Schetky’. The project is funded by Museums Galleries Scotland, and aims to catalogue, digitise, and re-home our art collection. The collection covers a huge variety of mediums and subject matter; from imposing portraits of surgeons past, to comical dental prints that make the viewer wholly thankful for modern anaesthetics.

Black and white line drawing showing bones of the spine from the 8th thoracic to the 5th lumber vertebra showing scoliosis and osteosis.

Our project has encompassed a wide range of collections work. We have catalogued almost 1000 artworks, installed new art racking and plan chests to house our collections safely, and carried out remedial conservation and repairs on our framed pieces. One notable work which has been re-homed and conserved is our project’s namesake, an anatomical study by John Alexander Schetky, a military surgeon who served in the Peninsular War between 1808 and 1814. The frame has been resealed, and the work is now hung safely on our new art racking - a considerable upgrade from its previous condition.

Anatomical study-male, in oil, by John Alexander Schetky (1785-1824)

Over the course of the project, we have also made some exciting discoveries. While searching through our case notes, we found that a large number of original medical illustrations had been filed with them. In total, we found around 200 illustrations that nobody had known were there. Many of these illustrations were ophthalmology drawings donated by George Mackay (1861-1949), a prominent Edinburgh based ophthalmic surgeon.

Watercolour drawing of the eyes showing iridocyclitis

We also discovered the significance of some drawings by Clifford Shepley and Ann Brown, who were among the first medical illustrators in the UK to use Max Brödel’s ‘Ross Board’ technique. We’ve even had a chance to show our historic illustrations to current medical artists, who shared valuable insights into the similarities and differences in style, form, and materials between historic and modern techniques.

Unfortunately, no museum has space to display all the objects in its collections, so digitising and making collections available online is the best way to make sure they can still be seen and enjoyed. More and more people are using online resources to access and explore museum collections, be it for research or just general interest. We want to make sure we are providing the best images possible to ensure we are showing our objects both clearly and accurately.

Our first step was to upgrade our photography equipment. With a grant generously allocated by the Scotland & Medicine Network, we purchased a brand-new (but also beginner friendly!) DSLR camera, along with a new tripod and lights. To go along with our new equipment, we also needed to upgrade our photography skills. We attended a two-day workshop with Rich Dyson, an Edinburgh based photographer with a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. During the workshop, we learned how to set up and use our camera properly, the principles of light and exposure, field of view and focal length, and the elements of composing a good photo. We also learned how to edit and finish our photographs using software to get them looking their best for our online catalogue.

We now have the skills and resources to provide researchers with high-resolution images of our objects, which will in turn help to increase our knowledge of our collections and the context surrounding them. With only a few months left until our project draws to a close, our next goal will be to photograph as much of the art collection as we can and make them available on our online catalogue. We can’t wait to share all our amazing artworks!

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