Boston, MA: Museum of Bad Art and the Warren Anatomical Museum

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These two museums have virtually nothing in common other than both being located in the Boston area, but I don’t really have enough to say on either museum to fill up a full length post, plus the Warren Museum doesn’t allow photography, so combining them allows me to include some entertaining photographs!  You may be familiar with MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) through their online gallery, which is in fact the only way to view most of their art collection.  However, they also have several “bricks-and-mortar” locations – one is in a movie theatre, so you have to buy a movie ticket to get inside, but the one we visited is in a public access television studio in Brookline, and is free, albeit slightly awkward to visit, as you have to look round the collection whilst people are at their desks working in front of you.

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The small collection (about 20 pieces) is displayed along two walls of a lobby, with a detailed (often amusing) explanation of exactly what makes each piece “bad art.” As MOBA puts it: “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”  So basically, you’re not simply laughing at the work of amateurs, but more often things where the skill is adequate, but something goes seriously wrong with the composition.

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MOBA was definitely good for a chuckle or two, but if you can’t go to see the actual paintings, I don’t really think you’re missing out.  Their online collections are far more extensive, and easily accessible to all, so I’d really only recommend going to the Brookline collection if you’re already in the area and feeling bored.

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Now, for the Warren Anatomical Museum.  It’s located inside the Countway Library of Medicine, which is apparently some kind of Harvard/Boston Medical Library alliance.  It’s right by what appears to be the hospital district of Boston, so parking is kind of a bitch unless you use one of the garages.  We had to undergo an interrogation/bag search by the rather unfriendly security guard, and show a photo ID to be allowed access to the library, but the museum is free, and located on the 5th floor.

On their website, they claim that the museum has over 300 cases, and I’m frankly puzzled as to how they came up with that number; as far as I could tell, they had four display cases (even if you broke up the display cases into individual sections, it was maybe 16 at the most).  They may have had 300 artefacts, but even that seems a generous estimate.  What I’m saying is that the museum is small, much smaller than their website would have you believe.  However, I guess I shouldn’t quibble too much over size, as there were some pretty neat things in there.

The main reason I wanted to visit (other than my general love of medical museums) was because they had Phineas Gage‘s skull, and, perhaps even more excitingly, the tamping iron that was jammed through it (woo, inanimate carbon rod!).  I remembered learning about Gage in psychology and linguistics classes, but in case you’re not familiar with him, basically, he was a 19th century construction foreman who had an iron rod rammed through his brain in an accident.  Surprisingly, he survived the incident, and was still a functioning adult, even though his frontal lobe was completely destroyed.  Unfortunately, the accident completely changed his personality, and he went from being reliable and amiable to argumentative and impatient, meaning it was impossible for him to hold down a job, and he exhibited himself in sideshows until his seizure-related death (another side-effect of the accident).  The reason Phineas Gage is so important is because his accident transformed the understanding of the brain, which led to developments in medicine and psychology (and darkly, would later indirectly lead to things like lobotomies, although really, if they had studied the case of Gage at all, they could have figured out destroying chunks of the brain was definitely a bad idea).  So yeah, it was pretty extraordinary to see the artefacts relating to his case.

Boston is also where the first public surgery under anaesthesia was performed, by Doctor John Warren, who is both the founder and namesake of the collection, so there were of course materials relating to that.  There were a few impressive teratological specimens, and the skeleton of a woman whose body had been absolutely destroyed by rickets, in addition to the usual surgical instruments you would expect from a medical museum.  They also had some fascinating accounts from students at the Victorian-era medical school, and the lengths they would go to obtain skeletons to study (something which involved conspiring with the janitor to get their hands on a corpse, which he would then boil down for them).  The walls were lined with portraits of famous 19th century doctors; the portrait of Crawford Long showed him to have the dark hair and long face that would have made him just my type, but a photograph of him taken in later life made me realise he was much less attractive than his portrait led me to believe.

Although it was a bit of a hassle accessing the Warren Museum, and the collection was fairly tiny (at least, the collection on display, I’m told their holdings are far more extensive), it was a rare opportunity to see Phineas Gage’s skull, so I am glad we stopped.  If you’re in Boston and a fan of medical history, then it’s definitely a worthwhile destination, just don’t expect your visit to take much longer than half an hour.

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3 comments

  1. Oh, I was so jealous of your chance to visit a bit of the actual MOBA! I’ve been an online addict for a couple of years. But I appreciate your candid comments, which clearly indicate that it’s not worthwhile flying to Boston to visit the tiny collection in Brookline. Thanks for saving me from an embarrassingly expensive disappointment.

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