NIH News Alert
National Library of Medicine

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

Robert Mehnert
Kathleen Cravedi
(301) 496-6308

"Dream Anatomy" (Or We've Got You Under the Skin)
National Library of Medicine Exhibition Focuses on Anatomy, Medicine, and the Artistic Imagination

Displaying some of its rare anatomical books and prints for the first time to the general public, the National Library of Medicine's "Dream Anatomy" exhibition opens on October 9, 2002. The Library owns one of the world's most extensive collections of historical anatomical books and prints; many of them are found in only a few libraries around the world.

The books, illustrations, and sculptures span A.D. 1500 to 2002. Anatomical artists pay homage to the body hidden under the skin with woodcuts, copper engravings, lithographs, photographs, and digital imaging. While many of the Library's rare anatomical books will be exhibited for the first time, the exhibition will also feature the work of 20th- and 21st-century artists, including a six-foot Plexiglas book of the Visible Humans, a hologram, and interactive anatomical displays.

"Who we are beneath the skin amazes, entertains, scares, fascinates, and inspires us," says Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine and a pathologist.

"But what many people might not realize, is that art, and the artistic imagination, have always been an essential part of the science of anatomy," says Dr. Michael Sappol, who curated the current exhibition. "There was a spirit of play that pervaded early anatomical books. Bodies might float in the air, male cadavers might sport battle armor, skeletons might be posed against a fantastic cityscape, or posed next to a rhino."

Andreas Vesalius, who is considered the father of modern anatomy, published his De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) at age 28. The 600-page book is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by artists from the workshop of Titian. While the illustrations were intended to be accurate, many of the corpses are shown standing in front of imaginary landscapes, and one is shown digging his own grave.

Starting in the 1700s anatomists begin purging their anatomical illustrations of imaginative elements and realism became the accepted style for scientific representation. Yet artists still played an important role in anatomy during this time. Realism was often exaggerated, a favorite artistic style. The cadavers were depicted in unsparingly harsh terms — often on the dissecting table.

And what about the 21st century? Do radiography, photography, digitization, and computer modeling make artistic skills obsolete?

"Not so," says Dr. Michael Ackerman, the father of NLM's Visible Human Project. "We rely on artists to make the Visible Humans' anatomy more understandable," he says. "Artists have taken the raw Visible Human digital data and simplified, enhanced, elaborated, and manipulated it. Their artistic perspective can help us understand anatomy better."

"Dream Anatomy" will open on October 9, 2002 and run through July of 2003. There will be an opening day program, "Anatomical Visions: Past, Present, and Future," which will feature short talks by historian Ynez Violé O'Neill from UCLA's School of Medicine, curator Michael Sappol, and artist Alexander Tsiaras. The program will be at 3:30 p.m. in the Library's Lister Hill Center Auditorium (Building 38). It will be preceded by coffee and refreshments at 3 p.m. There will be an opening reception at 5 p.m. in the exhibit area near the Library's main entrance (Building 38).

The Library will also host a free Thursday night film series, "Cinematic Dream Anatomy," from October 17 through November 14 at 6:30 p.m. The films, which will include "Fantastic Voyage" and "Gross Anatomy," will be shown in the Lister Hill Center Auditorium. For more information about the schedule and any possible cancellations, call 301-594-1947.

The home page for "Dream Anatomy" is

The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is located at 8600 Rockville Pike in Bethesda, Md. Because of heightened security, visitors traveling by car may enter the campus only on South Drive (off Rockville Pike), and Center Road (off Old Georgetown Road). The Medical Center station on the Metro's Red Line is two blocks from the National Library of Medicine.