Science and learning take center stage in a unique museum in Paris

Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris was built in the early 17th century by order of Henry IV to receive patients with epidemic diseases, plague, leprosy and more. (The hospital is named after King Louis IX “the Saint”, who was believed to have a divine healing ability.) To minimize the risk of spreading infections, the buildings were then located far from the central districts of Paris.

Today, the hospital area forms its own block in the bustling 10th arrondissement, between the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est train stations and the trendy bars around the Place de la République. The stylish original hospital buildings now mainly house administration and meeting rooms, while clinical activities take place in modern extensions.

Through the leafy courtyard of the Hôpital Saint-Louis, a passage leads to the separate brick building with a discreet sign above the entrance door: »Musée des moulages«. Photo: Peter Löfström

Ultimately, the Hôpital Saint-Louis developed a specific specialist competence in dermatology, and as part of this, a unique museum. Through the leafy courtyard of the hospital, a hidden oasis in the big city, a passage leads to a separate brick building with a discreet sign above the entrance door: »Musée des moulages«.

Sylvie Dorison has been responsible for the collections and the museum for several years. They meet on the wide stairs to the second floor and open the doors to the exhibition hall. Here the lighting is dimmed. Around the walls and along a narrow mezzanine stretch rows of beautifully patinated dark wood cabinets with glass doors, and behind the glass – hands, feet, heads, whole or half, mouths, genitals. Blisters, ulcers, discolorations, deformities.

– Some visitors experience the museum as a cabinet of horrors, but for me it is primarily about human fate, moving and often tragic, says Sylvie Dorison.

Nearly 5,000 wax casts of dermatological conditions can be viewed in the »Musée des moulages«. Photo: Peter Löfström

She emphasizes that the museum’s main purpose has always been educational and scientific. It is indeed open to the public, but only by appointment to book a guided visit, and to this day its extensive collection of casts acts as a scientific library, where even today’s medical students go to learn the more than studying hundred-year-old medicine. old the realistic depictions of dermatological disease states.

In some cases the name and profession of the person depicted is indicated on the back of the wooden plate on which the wax model is mounted. For the most part, however, the individual patients remain anonymous, while it is the visible traces of the ailments that have been preserved for posterity. The current diagnosis is more or less briefly presented in small print on a label under the wax model, for example: “Palmar keratosis of syphilitic origin, lesion appearing like scaly eczema.”

In the case of a 42-year-old woman with erythema on the back of the hand, background information shows that she worked as a ‘plongeuse’, a dishwasher. Another cast shows the effects of long-term itching on a 26-year-old woman’s leg: “Lesion caused largely by itching.”

The common name of the diseases is clearly indicated on signs above the respective stands, but the system is not entirely easy to understand at first. Sylvie Dorison explains that it took some time for those responsible to decide how the objects should be sorted. Only after long discussions was it decided to simply follow the alphabetical order based on the name of the disease in French. The same classification also includes the many drawings and watercolors of skin changes that are also included in the adjacent library.

Artist Jules Baretta, who made most of the museum’s plaster casts. Photo: Peter Löfström

In a prominent position in the hall outside the exhibition hall hangs a framed oil painting depicting a serious, white-haired older gentleman with a bushy mustache, dressed in a suit and under a long white apron. He sits on a chair in a room with the trappings of an artist’s studio: canvases and easels, bottles of turpentine, the glimpse of a piano, heavy curtains. Only when you take a closer look at the painting do you see hanging casts of various body parts on the wall behind the man, among the half-finished landscape paintings. On the frame there is a copper sign with the text: »Jules Baretta in his studio.«

The man in the painting, Jules Baretta (1834–1923), was the legendary artist who made most of the casts in the studio depicted in the painting from the late 1980s onwards.

The details of the technique Baretta used were kept secret for a long time. Only when he was older did he train a successor and share his knowledge of casting methods, chemical products and color compositions. Briefly, the casts were made by applying a thin layer of animal intestines to the part of the skin to be imaged. Above this layer, a plaster cast was first placed, which was allowed to harden before it could be loosened, and then served as a mold for the wax model itself, which was eventually painted by hand. The coloring itself was an important part of the craft and is one of the details that still impresses a visitor to this day. Part of the secret seems to be the method of coloring thin layers of wax on top of each other. It creates a feeling of transparency and makes the finished models less sensitive to outside influences.

Today, unfortunately, nothing remains of the interior design in Baretta’s studio, but there are still some contemporary testimonies. A lively and probably somewhat romanticized description of both the studio and the artist Baretta is included in Léon Roger-Milè’s 1891 reportage book on Hôpital Saint-Louis, »La cité de misère«. In one of the chapters, Roger-Milès visits the museum with the wax casts and describes the exhibition objects in detail before ascending the stairs to the attic and the studio. There he observes Baretta’s respectful meeting with the patients, who have been sent to the studio to depict their wounds or deformities: ‘Without brutality, with the tenderness of a mother and an unwavering patience, he handles his instruments, and while it plaster dries, he talks to each other. with the sick person, takes an interest in the ailment of the person concerned, hears how the symptoms develop and, through his friendly attitude, wins the patient’s trust without losing it.«

At other times, Baretta resorts to other methods to distract the patients’ thoughts while they wait for the plaster to harden: he shows them his paintings or plays a piece on the piano, writes Roger-Milès: ‘And the sick , who has been allowed to leave his bed for a while and now lives far from the hospital with its suffocating odors, far from the torments of the other patients, he can dream back to life, dream that everything is carefree, that life laughs, that this artist awakens new thoughts is a friend sent by Providence to open the patient’s heart to hope, the radiant hope of good health.«

However, the wax casts from Hôpital Saint-Louis are not entirely unique. Similar, albeit smaller, collections exist or have existed and were produced at approximately the same time. elsewhere in France, in Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Romania, but also, for example, in the University Hospital in Uppsala and the now closed Medical Historical Museum in Stockholm. Before Baretta’s time, in Paris there was a ‘pathological-anatomical’ museum with models made in a kind of papier-mâché. The very idea of ​​somehow attempting to produce three-dimensional models of human organs and disease states is considerably older than that, but the working methods were gradually refined – before photography technology began to compete with wax models. However, the collection of casts in Paris is the largest of its kind, and the museum is the only one still located in the original buildings.

Notices on the walls urge visitors to be restrictive with photography, out of respect for the anonymous patients and their relatives. However, for some time now every item from the collection has been photographed in high resolution and available online. Before photographic documentation, it was Sylvie Dorison and a colleague who had to carefully dust the thousands of casts. She describes the strong emotions that sometimes overcame her as she lifted the models one by one from the shelves behind the glass of the showcases, and shows us one example from the crowd: a face whose skin changes have been partially treated with surgical procedures, which in turn left ugly scars.

– That’s how that woman lived the rest of her life. Living with that appearance couldn’t have been easy, she muses.

Today, as on most days, it is Sylvie Dorison who closes the museum and is the last to leave.

Does it bother her when she walks alone past the illuminated display cases at night?

– I can sometimes feel a kind of presence of the souls of the deceased patients, and often feel very sorry for them. But no discomfort, she says.

Facts: Le musée the moldings

Le musée des moulages in the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris includes partly a collection of wax casts, partly a library of writings and images (mainly watercolours). In total, almost 5,000 wax casts are kept in the collection, divided into different categories. The largest of these (skin diseases, including syphilis) consists of 3,662 casts, the majority of which were made by the artist Jules Baretta. The museum was inaugurated in 1889, at the same time as the ongoing World Exhibition in Paris. It is open every weekday, only for guided tours »by appointment«.

Anna Popplewell

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