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Exhibition Spaces: A Review of the International Museum of Surgical Science

By Ann Cernek

The International Museum of Surgical Science, photo courtesy of

The International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS) in Chicago is housed in an early-twentieth century mansion on the Lake Michigan shore. As I hadn’t done much research on the museum before my visit and have a non-scientific background, I anticipated having difficulty connecting with the subject. Within minutes of entering the building, however, I realized how misguided my apprehension had been. I was quite immediately struck by the way in which the exhibits of IMSS are curated to tell the history of healing practices through a number of interactive and different mediums.

The building itself is a work of art. Modelled, so they claim, after the Petit Trianon in Versailles the marble facade of the Eleanor Robinson Countiss House glistens in the lakefront light. Inside, visitors are guided through the museum by ascending a gilded metal and limestone staircase lined with paintings depicting scenes of infirmaries and medical procedures. Guests that are unable to take the stairs are invited into the original, early-twentieth century Otis elevator. Whether up the grand staircase or the old-fashioned elevator, visitors are taken back through time as they enter the museum.

The first stop in the small museum is the 19th Century Apothecary and Dentist’s Office. The elaborate recreation of these two sites is brought to life with a speaking mannequin shop-keeper. While ascending the large staircase up to the second floor, one is immediately drawn into the Hall of Immortals. This brightly lit, marble-tiled room is lined with the statues of 12 influential medical figures from Imhotep to Louis Pasteur to Marie Curie. To walk amongst these great figures shining in the lake light and into the the Thorek Manuscripts and Rare Books Collection, a beautiful wooden panelled library, is to be inspired to learn the story the museum has to tell.

The Hall of Immortals at the International Museum of Surgical Science, photo courtesy of

With the Hall of Immortals still fresh on the visitor’s mind, they are led into the Hall of Murals. The walls in this room are adorned with paintings by Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo, an Italian painter who sought to depict the history of surgery. These somewhat gruesomely detailed paintings are rendered beautiful as they illustrate moments in which the advancement of medicine is being used to save lives.

Visitors of the IMSS are also led towards social action. The exhibit A World Without Polio details the ramifications of completely eradicating polio in the world. The large, striking iron lung draws the museum guest into the small exhibit room and instills in them a sense of the suffering brought on by viruses such as polio.

Just a fragment of the IMSS’ vast collection of surgical instruments, photo courtesy of

The third and fourth floors of the museum continue to offer rooms filled with surgical instruments, medical journals, x-ray images, texts on homeopathic practices, photographs, paintings and nurse uniforms from the early twentieth century. On my way out I asked my brother and fellow visitor what he thought of the wide variety of mediums used in the exhibits at the IMSS. “The museum was surprisingly immersive – at times I felt transported back in time. And it made me want to learn more about surgery, which I really wasn’t interested in before.” We continued discussing how much fun the visit had been as we walked away from the mansion and towards the lake, happy with our new discovery.

Consider checking out the International Museum of Surgical Science next time you’re in the beautiful Windy City!

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