PhD: Gitte Samoy | Supervisor: Nele Wynants | Co-supervisor: Marjan Doom

This subproject will focus on the question to what extent ideas about the sane or the ‘normal’ body, but also medical knowledge about disease and physical deviation were installed, confirmed or challenged at the 19th-century fair, particularly by focusing on the relation and possible exchange between the anatomical cabinets on the one hand and the so-called freaks shows or spectacles of the exotic on the other. One of the oldest attractions at the fair is indeed the display of so-called abnormal bodies, exhibited as a spectacle. For a penny's worth, visitors were allowed to marvel at bodies that did not meet the standards: dwarves, giants, Siamese twins and other ‘miracles of nature’ were exhibited in small booths or so-called entresorts. During the exhibition, the owner of the booth often explained in detail how these people had acquired their anomalies, and presented said explanation as the scientific state of the art. It was not only the desire for sensation that prompted people to go and see the wonders of the fairground. They were also driven by an elementary curiosity about nature and the functioning of the human body. Visitors satisfied their curiosity in the many anatomical cabinets that travelled along European fairs informing the public about human anatomy and its anomalies. This project will provide insight into the apparent paradoxical strategy of demonstrating new scientific knowledge, while their primary function may have been to communicate middle-class values to a working-class public.

What kind of knowledge of the body was performed (and how) in anatomical cabinets, freak shows and so-called ethnographic museums and which ideas and cultural values about the sane, the ‘normal’ or ‘white’ body, but also disease and physical deviation were challenged or reinforced at the 19th-century fair?

Neumann's Anatomisch-Pathol. Museum, 1895. Poster by Adolph Friedländer, Theater collection UvA (Allard Pierson)