- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

The main attraction of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History new display, a life-size papier-mache model, almost suffered the same fate as the cadavers it was meant to emulate.
The 6-foot-tall creation was discovered in storage about two years ago, buried in a coffinlike container amid the Smithsonian's many treasures. Had an untrained pair of eyes landed on it first, it might have been discarded. Once rescued and restored to near-mint condition, the male figure became part of the museum's considerable papier-mache collection, a stockpile that dates back to the 1800s.
"Artificial Anatomy: Papier-mache Anatomical Models," a new showcase exhibit that runs through December, features about 50 representations of man and beast. Beginning in the 1800s, papier-mache sculptures allowed medical students to study the human body without relying completely upon cadavers.
Judy Chelnick, museum specialist and co-curator of the exhibit, says the sturdy, lightweight models proved popular for instructors constrained by a cadaver's limitations. "They can be literally dissected like a real cadaver," says Ms. Chelnick of papier-mache models, typically formed by mixing paper pulp with glue. The life-size model boasts 29 separate parts that can be removed and studied.
But in warm weather, cadavers couldn't be relied upon for any stretch of time.
"In the summer months, without refrigeration, it wasn't pleasant," says fellow co-curator Richard Barden, senior objects conservator with the museum.
Waxen figures proved adequate substitutes for some research, but they, too, wilted in the heat.
Anatomical papier-mache models, like those on display, sprang from the mind of Dr. Louis Thomas Jerome Auzoux in the mid-1850s. The doctor learned how hard it was to study the human form through traditional methods during medical school. Cadavers provided a fountain of knowledge, but archaic preservation methods meant they wouldn't last long. Suitable cadavers were also difficult to come by, and occasionally bodies were stolen to fulfill medical needs.
Dr. Auzoux didn't have any formal art training to help him craft his models, according to Ms. Chelnick. Instead, he took his creative cues from his surroundings.
"He was inspired by puppets and dolls … [He and members of his company] watched marionette shows on the streets of Paris," she says.
The company Dr. Auzoux formed to create the models starting in the 1850s is still in existence, though about 10 years ago it switched its focus away from papier-mache to plastic, Mr. Barden says. Most of the models in the Smithsonian's display were born in Dr. Auzoux's factory starting from the late 1800s.
The aforementioned male figure represents one of only a handful of remaining full-sized models.
"He's the only [full-size, papier-mache] male model that exists in the U.S.," she says. Two others have been found one in the Netherlands, the other in Florence, Italy.
At their peak, the models were used for anatomical study at Harvard University, the universities of Toronto and Michigan and other schools, says Ms. Chelnick. But though they proved informative, instructors realized the human body itself could teach lessons no other medium could match.
"This was just a supplement on learning anatomy," she says. "They were never meant to replace the cadaver."

The Smithsonian's collection, which includes a turkey, waxen female figurines, a human ear and a kitschy Invisible Woman model kit from the 1950s, has grown slowly over time.
While some of the models are rare, it's even less common for them to be seen at all. A few of the oldest pieces, which date back to the 1850s, were first displayed at the Smithsonian at the end of the 19th century shortly after their purchase. But they have not been showcased since then, according to a Smithsonian spokeswoman.
Mr. Barden says the life-size male model with the realistic-looking network of arteries demanded about 130 hours of labor to restore it to its once pristine state. The smaller male figure took about 35 hours to refurbish. Layers of caked-on dirt slowly gave way to red and flesh-colored surfaces.
"We were very happy the way it came out," Mr. Barden says. "The dirt came off relatively easily."
Smithsonian conservators peered through microscopes to attack the accumulated grime, swiping it away with cotton swabs dipped in ice water. Surface coats made of protein-based collagen, the most delicate part of the models, swell when exposed to water. Using chilled water as a cleansing agent keeps the swelling down while the dirt is flushed off.
Papier-mache might feel solid to the touch, but the top coat "shrinks and dries out and cracks" without proper care, Mr. Barden says. Conservators use a heated spatulalike tool to coax back down onto the surface any layers that have come free. The device, dialed up to about 152 degrees Fahrenheit, can be used alone or with an adhesive if the layers don't cooperate.
The painstaking restorative work shows in the gleaming figures that seem as if they were painted last year, not a century ago.
To complete the anatomical accuracy of the figures, artists used metal wire to approximate the crisscrossing pattern of blood vessels.
"The arteries are made of stranded wire nailed into place. As the arteries and veins split off, they split the strands to get the look," he says.
The models may not be in great demand today, but a century ago many homes relied on an array of papier-mache products.
"Papier-mache was considered a permanent material in the 1800s," he says. The substance was relied upon for such household goods as plates, bookcases and serving trays. A couple of ornamental items born of the material are included in the display.
If papier-mache products are stored at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit with a stable humidity level of around 50 percent, they can last for hundreds of years, Mr. Barden says. Extended exposure to bright light can shorten that life span, so the display boasts delicate illumination.
Today's anatomy instructors don't rely on papier-mache models nearly as much as they once did, but they still prove useful in certain settings.
"People [still] use anatomical models all the time," Ms. Chelnick says, from high schools to colleges. "They make them for all different kinds of things … from CPR dummies to teaching how to diaper a baby."


WHAT: "Artificial Anatomy: Papier-Mache Anatomical Models"
WHERE: National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 17.
TICKETS: Admission free
PHONE: 202/357-2700

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