We meet PhD student Gitte Samoy in Berchem, in a basement full of strange objects and curiosities: wax heads with outward signs of syphilis and other skin diseases, models of pregnant women with exposed bellies, conjoined twins preserved in formaldehyde… Welcome to the Coolen family collection! Gitte is starting her research at the Science at the Fair project with the inventory of this special collection. Together with the team, she will study the role of travelling fairgrounds in spreading science, technology and visual culture.

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We are standing next to the wax portrait of a man with a severe eye infection. Gitte explains: “The manufacturers of these models often made them for both medical education and travelling museums that were featured at the annual funfair over a hundred years ago. But I suspect that some were made solely for their entertainment value. For example, when they are less realistic, show a lot of expression or, as here, have an infection that looks very exaggerated.”

The role of the body at the fairground

The ERC project Science at the Fair is researching the role that itinerant showpeople played in the dissemination and popularization of science, technology and visual culture through fairgrounds in North-western Europe between 1850 and 1914. Gitte conducts research into the specific subarea of representations of the body.

She examines the different ways in which bodies were displayed at funfairs and which moral messages on sexuality, gender, class, health standards, etc. they contained and disseminated. Specifically, in the next years she will focus on researching so-called ‘freak shows’ and models from the collections of travelling anatomy museums of that time.

The Coolen family collection, with extensive assortments from the Spitzner and Roca museums, is the ideal starting point.

From Paris to Ghent

Doctor Pierre Spitzner founded a permanent museum in Paris from 1850 to 1885. Soon after, the collection began to travel around, also visiting fairgrounds in Ghent, Antwerp and Liège.

The exhibition had two sections: one where anyone could enter and one where only adult men were welcome. And according to Gitte, there was good reason for that: “Here, mainly wax figures with venereal diseases were shown. And at the time these were not deemed suitable for the eyes of minors or sometimes even women. Then again, in the collection of the Roca museum in Barcelona (Spain) during the 1920s and 1930s, there were so many depictions of venereal diseases that I find it hard to believe they only disclosed a limited section of their collection.”

For your learning and entertainment

The Roca museum’s major focus on these specific wax figures and prints was mainly a consequence of their impulse to ‘educate’ the working class.

“The museum itself was in the middle of a working-class neighbourhood. And since posters with the Red Cross logo have also been recovered, it becomes clear that they really wanted to emphasize this collaboration.”

But Gitte also nuances this discovery: “They probably did this in part to legitimize themselves. They certainly wanted to raise awareness, but once you know that Roca comes from a travelling show family, and was a ventriloquist, you understand that he also knew better than anyone how to attract and entertain people.”

Scientifically (in)valid

In Belgium, the authorities had little problem with these kinds of exhibitions. More so, they rather considered these collections an advantage in helping fight the spread of diseases and excessive alcohol consumption in working-class circles.

“Then again, you see a very different attitude in the UK,” Gitte observes, “especially from a medical point of view. There, similar museums were labelled ‘unscientific’ and ‘obscene’ as early as 1857.

The fact that medication was sometimes sold in those places also met with a lot of resistance. In Belgium, on the other hand, the Spitzner museum could claim a place at fairgrounds until 1950 without much trouble.”

The inventory of the Coolen family collection is merely the starting point of Gitte’s research. It is very challenging to find out more about the historical context and public reaction at the time.

“Sometimes you can find a brief description of the wax figures, but more often than not, no documentation has survived. I want a medical professional to review these pictures once more to see if we can identify some additional pathologies.

I am also very much looking forward to visiting Barcelona, where I was told a lot of interesting material about Roca and their history as a travelling fairground family can be found.” To be continued, then!