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Skin: A Layered History

Skin a Layered History Exhibition, Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh

A new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, explores the social, cultural and medical history of skin from the 1500s to the present day.

The Royal College of Physicans puts on a regular series of public exhibitions. The theme for each exhibition take inspiration from one of the 36 specialities of the college's fellows and members, connecting the work they do with the collections held, as well as creating something exciting for the general public.

This time, curator Dr Daisy Cunynghame describes how the speciality of dermatology was used as the starting point. From here, skin was explored not purely in terms of the science of dermatology, but also in the various ways people have thought about and engaged with skin in the past and present. The interesting history of skin is presented through objects, interviews and interactive screens on display until October.

Wax moulages and medical text books on display

at The Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh

Four main themes are explored, starting with the idea of skin as a boundary - one that might need to be opened up to let out the sickness trapped within. Various objects on display highlight the opening up of skin to reveal and release hidden diseases from bloodletting to the lesser-known practice of blistering with Spanish flies. The exhibition also features objects like anatomical flap sheets and medical illustrations that 'peel' back the skin to reveal hidden knowledge about the body and its functions.

Johann Remmelin, Anatomical Flap Sheet (1702)

The exhibition then moves on to uncover the history of skin diagnosis and treatment. It explores the role scientific illustrations and models played in the development of dermatology, from the brutal to the beautiful. A collection of wax moulages show highly realistic painful skin complaints whilst some of the medical illustrations present almost romanticised images of dermatological conditions.

Objects like prosthetic legs and scarificators cover the history of skin markings - from scaring and flaying to tattoos. The exhibition also looks at the concept of medical tattooing with a specially produced breast mould showing areola tattooing for cancer survivors.

Finally, the exhibition explores skin-related prejudice from the past and present in the context of racism, sexism and classism. This includes four short interviews with Dr Ophelia E. Dadzie, a consultant dermatologist and dermatopathologist based in London, talking about race in the context of dermatology. A lot of textbook diagnoses apply only to caucasian skin but it is equally unhelpful to talk about either black or white skin. This has rippling impacts across medicine where changes in the skin are part of the diagnostic process.

Proesthetic Leg (1980s)

As well as showcasing historical medical texts and illustrations, the exhibition also includes the work of two contemporary artists Eliza Bennant and Jessica Harrison, which the curator hopes will bring an alternative perspective on skin in the present. Bennant's 'A Woman's Work is Never Done' is photographic series showing threads sewen into the skin of her hand as a symbol of the callouses caused by unpaid domestic and caring labour. 'Handheld' by Harrison is a collection of dollhouse furniture made from a material that mimics human skin. These slightly unsettling artworks will fascinate and probe you to think differently about skin.

Skin: A Layered History runs until the 13th of October and is open Monday to Friday from 10 am - 4.30 pm. You can view the exhibition at The Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh located at 11 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JQ.

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