Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An Informal Education at the IMSS

The Statue Outside of IMSS - Help to those who don't like science!

Last week we headed to the International Museum of Surgical Science, a true gem among Chicago's already impressive museums.  Located in a four-story Gold Coast mansion built in 1917, the building is an odd but perfect match for a medical museum. 

A Peek Up the Main Staircase
If you don’t happen to be a scholar in medicine or science, this place will quickly change your mind.  In fact, the museum is intriguing for its location alone (although it has plenty more to offer than that).  The building that houses the IMSS, now an official Chicago landmark, had originally been a residence built by Eleanor R. Countiss (daughter of a wealthy Diamond Match Company executive) in 1917, where she and her family continued to live until 1950.  It was designed with Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette in mind, and the building exterior to this day resembles a French chateau. Then, Dr. Max Thorek (founder of the International College of Surgeons) acquired the property in 1950.  Although he made some renovations to the interior during his first few years of ownership, the building still maintains many of its original decorative marble, plaster, and woodwork features, including the beautiful fireplaces on all floors, as well as the grand main staircase.  The museum opened its doors to the public in 1954, and has been welcoming guests ever since.  Despite its prominent location on Lake Shore Drive, overlooking the lake and only steps away from Lincoln Park, this museum is too often slighted in the shadows of its larger counterparts around the city.  We will take you through it in case you, too, have missed it!

On the first floor of the museum, tucked away in the far left corner off the main office, is an early 20th century pharmacy and dentist set up, called the “Turn of the Century Apothecary Shop” of Dr. Uriah Jones.  This is, at first glance, reminiscent of the “Yesterday’s Main Street” mainstay exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.  The IMSS takes this idea one step further—not only providing the environmental “feel” of yesteryear to the visitor, but by using the apothecary as a medium to explain to the visitor its social and medical properties (via an audio “tour” of the room).
Dr. Uriah Jones in his Apothecary

As an outsider to the medicine and science scholarly camp, this exhibit was a great introduction into the museum.  While science and medicine seem daunting, I can get on board with history.  The historical (almost theatrical) setup of the apothecary was entertaining, enough so that it allowed me to also swallow scientific information at the same time.  I hated learning about science in school.  It was too complicated to be interesting, and it’s not really a field that is learn-able on paper alone (which the schooling system relies too heavily on to teach to students).  Medicine, and science more generally, are more interesting to me now that an obscure knowledge of it isn't mandatory.  As an adult, I’ve found it's nice to have museums to offer that supplemental education, after formal education is offer. And, bonus, no student loans attached to learning in a museum!  

Fortunately the Museum of Surgical Science doesn’t resort to teaching or presenting science just on paper alone.  It has its four floors jampacked with artifacts and exhibits and information of all types.  Having been unfamiliar with this museum before my visit, I assumed the IMSS would be small, because it’s on the road less traveled (which, in terms of museums in this city, typically indicates the road north of Monroe Street).  I was very wrong. 

There was honestly enough variety that the museum could engage both those more learned visitors (there were many doctors, nurses and professionals in the medical field visiting), and those less familiar with the subject matter (me).  The historical approach to learning about medicine was pretty readily available throughout the museum, which was probably most engaging in the artifacts (especially the iron lung and Victorian-era wheelchairs).  Surprisingly to me, the IMSS also heavily incorporates art into its mission.  Most notable in this category is the “Artist Residency” special exhibit, a program the Museum has been fostering to lend Chicago-based artists an opportunity to learn and create art within its walls relating to medical history.  It is an excellent program, offering yet another means of interpreting medical and scientific knowledge to both the artists and the museum’s visitors. 

A Look into the Hall of Immortals from the Library
In a more abstract sense, the second floor of the museum is dedicated to various artistic depictions of Medicine’s “hall of famers.”  The Hall of Immortals, as it’s called, features compelling sculptures of some of Medicine’s more notable contributors, including Imhotep, Marie Curie, and Andres Vesalius.  These sculptures by Chassaing and Linck are accompanied by nothing more than the natural lighting provided in the Hall, and some salient museum labels (actually I would argue the IMSS had the best museum labels throughout).  Though simple, is a pretty dramatic presentation that sticks with the visitor as you go on to other floors to learn more specifics about the Immortals’ contributions.  And on your way back down that grand staircase, you realize that you truly have learned more about medicinal history on those four floors than any textbook alone could teach you!