dinsdag 13 april 2010

Strange Medicine Men Diverse collection of medical postcards Photography

The exhibition is based on the collection of some 600 picture postcards belonging to pharmacist and clinical pharmacologist Peter de Smet, and is augmented with cards and related objects from the museum’s collection. In this setting, objects such as disease masks and wax casts of body parts are put in a new perspective.

‘Greetings from...’ tells the story of the Western fascination with the exotic and aberrant, and explores the elusive realm that exists between curiosity and entertainment.

The rise of the picture postcard

The very first postcard, which did not feature any illustration, was printed in Austria in 1869. The advent of photography and new printing techniques helped usher in the picture postcard as we now know it. Postcards were very popular amongst travellers, who either sent or kept them as souvenirs. Against the backdrop of growing industrialisation, scenes from a ‘primitive’ civilisation captured the imagination of Europeans, who romanticised the stories from this faraway, ‘different’ world. The postcard confirmed the existence of this other world, and fulfilled Western fantasy. It was not long before the images were being rapidly distributed on postcards all over Europe, and competition on the commercial market became fierce.

Curiosity and propaganda
The picture postcard flourished in the period between 1890 and 1930. Few could afford a trip to the colonies, and picture postcards with exotic illustrations served as evidence of the existence of another world. Evocative picture postcards of magic healers and never before seen methods of treatment prompted wonder, jealousy and astonishment. As a result of this Western interest in the strange and exotic, picture postcards appeared that showed people with tropical diseases and physical defects. Postcards of people with deformities were also popular. In this context patients were presented as attractions. In addition to this commercial purpose, medical postcards were also used as propaganda for missionary work in the colonies. Efforts to spread the Christian faith were accompanied by projects to build schools and hospitals. Photographs were distributed in postcard form in order to keep those at home informed and to raise money for the medical endeavours in the tropics. In many cases the photos were taken by amateur photographs, often the missionaries themselves.

The same photograph was used on different postcards in a variety of ways. Cut-outs and colour were used to emphasise the exotic element. The manipulation is clearly visible when the postcards are lined up. Not only the photograph is altered; the caption, too, changes. The same photograph is used to illustrate different native practices, or to send greetings from different countries.

From scientific source to entertainment

From 1860 onward photography became an important way to record patients’ symptoms. Photographs taken by physical anthropologists and ethnographers reached the public at large in Europe after being printed in books and newspapers and circulated as picture postcards. Production in postcard form completely changed the function of the anthropological and medical photographs from scientific source to entertainment. Fascination with physical deformities or aberrations has been around since the dawn of mankind. In the 19th century, inhabitants of the colonies were captured and exhibited in zoos, festivals and World’s Fairs.

Beliefs about sickness and healing

People deal with sickness and healing all over the world. Beliefs about sickness and healing are subject to cultural differences, and often relate to religion and spirituality. Western medical science underwent rapid development in the 19thcentury. As a result, faith-oriented and supernatural views of illness (for example ritual ceremonies, superstition, magic and demons) were regarded as primitive. At the same time, postcards depicting magical practices and healers fulfilled the wish for a faraway, exotic world. This exoticism was further emphasised using cut-outs, embellishments and scenery. The quick and massive distribution of postcards had a huge impact on the conceptualisation of the colonial populations.

Disease prevention and control

During the 19th century, lack of hygiene was regarded as a pressing social problem in Europe and steps were taken accordingly on a large scale. The state assumed the responsibility of instructing the public on how to prevent diseases. This also applied to the colonies, where the state performed studies on the prevention and control of tropical diseases. To this end, the Tropical Hygiene department was created in the ‘Colonial Institute’ in Amsterdam, which is known today as the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).


The companion publication (in English) to the exhibition ‘Greetings From...’ will be published in the autumn of 2009. Different Truths. Ethnomedicine in Early Postcards by Peter de Smet will be on sale for € 34.50 (ISBN 9789460220173). Lees verder ...
Japanese doctor (left) and Japanese physicist (right). Collection Peter De Smet.

Native American medicine man. Alaska, United States. Collection Peter De Smet.

A crippled man enjoying his sigar. Freetown, Sierra Leone. Collection Peter De Smet.

Man with elephantiasis, the swelling and forming of thicker skin of one or several body parts. Collection Peter De Smet.

Leprosy care. Nurse with a patient. Dahomey, Benin. Collection Peter De Smet.

Transport to the hospital in Madagascar. Collection Peter De Smet.

Woman with suction pads on the head as a pain relief, Congo. Collection Peter De Smet.

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