Caring for a Collection of Seventeenth Century Ivory Manikins

By Scott W. Devine, Head of Preservation

The Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory recently completed the rehousing of a fascinating collection of seventeenth century ivory manikins (small sculptures which open to reveal details of human anatomy). As with most items that are treated in the conservation lab, recent consultation and study of the collection by a researcher provided the starting point for conservation assessment and a review of the current housing.

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Each manikin includes delicately carved features and is often attached to a support of carved wood. Finely detailed pillows are a common feature on items in the collection. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #27.

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In most female manikins, the abdominal wall removes to reveal tiny painted organs and a small fetus connected by a linen cord. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #27.

History of Ivory Manikins

The renewed interest in human anatomy following the publication by Andreas Vesalius of De humani corporis fabrica in 1543 resulted in a growing demand for écorché drawings which depicted anatomical cross sections of the human body. In addition to drawings, sculptors in France, Italy and Germany began to specialize in detailed cross sections of specific organs which could be used for anatomical study. Out of this tradition of producing three-dimensional study models, either molded from wax or sculpted from wood or ivory, grew the art of carving ivory manikins:

Quite apart from the écorché figures, the ivory eyes, ears and skeletons, yet another product of the carver’s skill was produced in considerable numbers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was a small manikin of a man or a woman measuring from 12 to 24 centimeters in length with the anterior thoracic and abdominal wall removable to reveal the viscera. By far the greater number of these lie supine on a stand or in a fitted case and are carved in ivory; some stand on a small pedestal. Although they do occur in pairs, male and female, it is more common for single female figures to be found and in almost every case the figure is represented in an advanced state of pregnancy; the foetus being attached to the uterus by a red cord or else loose within the cavity.[1]

The term manikin is preferred as it denotes a figure with articulated limbs, the moveable arms being essential for allowing the removal of the abdominal wall.

The New York Academy of Medicine Library holds seven manikins, including a rare male and female pair. The manikins do not contain physical markings to indicate artist or date of creation. We do know that one of the largest producers of ivory manikins was Stephan Zick (1639-1715) of Nürnberg and that the Zick workshop produced possibly more manikins than any other workshop in Germany.[2]

Significance and Use

Unlike the detailed écorché figures designed for study purposes, it is unlikely that the manikins were used for teaching or instruction. The lack of detail on the internal organs would limit their function in this capacity. Le Roy Crummer (1872-1934) describes a female patient who remembers learning about pregnancy in 1865 with the aid of an ivory manikin, although such instruction does not seem to be the intended use of the manikins.[3] It is possible that the manikins were considered objects of curiosity, collector’s items that perhaps represented a growing interest in women’s health and the physiology of pregnancy. It is also conceivable that the manikins were given as gifts to newly married couples as good luck tokens intended to signify a future of healthy childbirth. Regardless of the original purpose, as art form the manikins represent an intriguing merger of Baroque art and science.

Designing a New Enclosure

Maintaining complex three-dimensional moveable objects such as the manikins is similar to the work required to preserve rare books in good working condition. In both cases, proper storage and housing are critical for long term preservation.  Enclosures designed for the delicate manikins must account for many moving parts, including fragile ivory fingers and tiny internal organs. The previous temporary housing consisted of wrapping the manikins in acid-free tissue and tying labels to each manikin, stacking them in a Coroplast® polypropylene box.  While this solution protected the manikins during storage, it did not allow for easy viewing and required a complex unwrapping and re-wrapping procedure to access each manikin.

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The previous temporary housing did not facilitate easy access and introduced the possibility of damaging the delicate manikins during the unwrapping process.

The new enclosure takes into consideration the needs of each manikin by creating a small custom designed tray with two types of polyethylene foam to make sure that each manikin fits securely inside each tray: dense Ethafoam® provides basic support and is lined with softer Volara® foam in areas where the foam directly touches the manikin. The trays are fitted with handles of linen tape that allow the tray to be removed from a larger housing without touching the manikin. The trays are designed to fit into pre-made archival boxes purchased from Gaylord Brothers. The pre-made boxes were retrofitted with Ethafoam® supports lined with Volara® foam. The addition of the Ethafoam® allows the boxes to be easily transported from the environmentally controlled stacks to the Rare Book Room, minimizing vibration and movement within the box.

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Yungjin Shin, Collections Care Assistant, designed the interior of the storage boxes, taking advantage of the box depth to fit as many trays in each box as possible. In this case, the manikin’s tortoise shell bed and pillow rest in a tray above the actual manikin, pictured in the next image. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #23.

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Chloe Williams, 2017 Pre-Program Intern, designed customized trays for each manikin, taking into consideration the contours of each object. Webster Anatomical Manikin Collection #23.

As an additional support, each tray includes a custom fitted pillow of Tyvek® filled with polyester batting that rests on top of each manikin. The pillows further minimize shifting within the box without introducing a rigid support that could damage the fragile ivory features of each manikin. Typical of most artifact housings, each box is labeled with a photograph of the contents so that there is no confusion about which manikin is inside.

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Boxes labeled with photographs allow for easy identification of contents without having to check inventory numbers or search for less obvious identification marks.

Gloves are used when the manikins need to be handled to reveal the intricate internal organs. In situations where the manikin needs to be removed from the tray, the placement of supports within each tray is intentional and designed to encourage the use of two hands when removing the manikin.

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The use of gloves when handling the manikins protects the item and allows for better control when handling the smooth ivory surface.

Working with this extraordinary collection has allowed the conservation staff to refine our skills in objects housing and to begin designing similar projects to preserve the rich collection of artifacts that complement the Academy Library’s rare book collection.

References:
[1] K.F. Russell. Ivory Anatomical Manikins. Medical History 1972; 16(2): 131-142.
[2] Eugene von Philippovich. Elfenbein. Munich: Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1981.
[3] Le Roy Crummer. Visceral Manikins in Carved Ivory.  American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 1927; 13: 26-29.

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