Wax Eloquent: Artefacts, Emotions and Public Sites

Between the 17th and 18th century wax sculptures were exhibited at fairs and cabinets of curiosity. One of the first creators of this method of popular entertainment was Antoine Beneoist (1632 – 1717). The French artist was a member of the Royal Société de Beaux Arts and also worked for the court of King Louis XIV. In 1668, he received a royal privilege to portray and expose members of the court for money. Other cabinets soon sprang up following his example. Before the existence of newspapers, these kinds of exhibitions fulfilled the social function of informing the population about historical personalities. Throughout the 19th century, some of these cabinets became popular anatomical museums, while others developed into itinerant exhibitions, which showed their collections at fairs and circuses. The growth of these public places for the enjoyment of science and anatomy matched the spectator’s demand to participate in interesting scientific discoveries, and their desire for entertainment and fun.

Wax Eloquent aims to provide an insight into the cultural history of medicine, by focusing on the cultural biography of scientific artefacts in 19th century Europe. The selection of anatomical models in our exhibition will highlight the relation between scientific pedagogy and the incipient spectacle world of the 19th and 20th century. This virtual exhibition takes the viewer on a journey through the rhetoric of public display.

We are very grateful to the Museum Olavide in Madrid, the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden, the Science Museum, London and the Coolen family for their generous permission to reproduce the following pictures.