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The Wunderkammer: Digital History Site Review


April 7, 2015 by rjordan10

The website that I am going to be reviewing is called the Wunderkammer. It is a site that features illustrations and photos from old medical books. This first appealed to me because even though science is not really a strong-point of mine, I have always been interested in medical history, so I figured this would be a fun site for me to review; even back in high school, I remember writing one of my important final research paper on medieval medicine. I first found out about the site when I was reading a Slate article called Digital Archives: Five Great Sites From 2013. The description statement for the Wunderkammer is:

Wunderkammer* is a gallery of unique medical art treasures from the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library. Travel in time and explore woodcuts, lithographs, color printings and much more never before seen outside the library archives.

The nature of the site seems to be kind of a cross between an exhibit and an educational tool. One the homepage, it is mostly pictures, but there is a sort of “table of contents” that can help you navigate the site, if you are looking for something specific. The “table of contents” is broken up into several different sections: ‘area,’ ’emotion,’ ‘year,’ ‘technique,’ and a search box.The illustrations on the website are taken from medical texts that are housed in the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, which is located at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. On the website, the mission statement is:

The Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library is the core of Karolinska Institutet´s Unit for Medical History and Heritage, which promotes public and scholarly understanding of the history of health, medicine and science. Through publications, exhibitions, lectures, and demonstrations we hope to spread the interest for the history of medicine and old books to students, teachers and researchers of the Karolinska Institutet and to all interested in our cultural heritage.

The goal of the Wunderkammer is for people who don’t have access to the classes at the school in Sweden, but are still interested in the topic and want to learn about it. While they might not be able to visit the actual library and see the books in person, they can still go on the website and see the illustrations from them, which is the next best thing. I think the website does a good job of taking the books and digitalizing their illustrations. I have never visited the library, so I obviously can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely to me that every illustration from every medical text in the library has been digitalized on the site. I could be wrong, but that seems like it would be almost impossible to do; I’m guessing what the site creators did was pick the best illustrations, or the more interesting ones, and use them.

In terms of origins, the site is part of the school’s Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library (which was established in 1997,) and they are the ones who are responsible for its upkeep/maintenance. Almost all of the books, and illustrations used on the website were donations/gifts from prominent Swedish doctors in the 18th and 19th centuries; however, they have also received new donations, and even purchased new books themselves, since they began in 1997. Some of the bigger donations include donations from the old and rare books collections from the Swedish Pharmaceutical Society, and the Swedish Society of Dentists.

Since the website is put out by a university, the intended audience seems to be mostly scholars, both doctors and historians. However, people who are interested in history as a hobby could also get some enjoyment from the site, as it is mostly pictures, and there is not a lot of reading. I actually hoped there would be more information about all of the illustrations/pictures, because some of them had barely any information accompanying them, even though they were interesting pictures that most people would see and want to know more about.

Overall, though, I like this site a lot. It’s really one of those sites that you can spend hours on just browsing. Some of the illustrations on the site can be pretty gruesome, but that is really just par for the course with anything related to medical history.

1 comment »

  1. kdaly3 says:

    I also think its interesting that this site is attached to a medical history library, as I view these images more as art and curiosities from the past and less like a resource for students interested in medicine (unless you’re looking at perhaps the history and evolution of the medical field, which is also an interesting topic which it seems like you’ve researched before), but perhaps that just speaks to its versatility based on what perspective you’re keen on taking in your research endeavors. I’m actually surprised to hear this site started in 1997, but that’s definitely a compliment because of it’s wonderful design: it’s both appealing and easy to use.

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