For the third edition of Local Issues and Locales, Honours in Curatorship student, Alex Abrahams, examines UCT’s Pathology Learning Centre and Archive.

As a part of the Honours in Curatorship Local Issues and Locales course, the Honours in Curatorship class recently attended a fieldtrip to UCT’s Pathology Learning Centre. In preparation for the fieldtrip, Josephine Higgins provided a lecture on the Michaelis Galleries exhibition, Between Subject & Object: Human remains at the interface of art and science (2014),that she co-curated with Kathryn Smith and Penny Siopis, highlighting questions about the representation of the dead body. Between Subject & Object explored the idea of the corpse as a continuum between subject and object, similarities and differences across scientific and fine art representations, the ethics of such representations, andvarious rituals of interacting with the dead body, such as cleansing, preparation and mourning practices. We discussed how remains can signify the whole, highlighting the need to treat such ‘specimens’ with respect, and with this sensitivity in mind we arrived at the Pathology Learning Centre.

We were met by Dr Jane Yeats, curator of the Pathology Learning Centre, who engaged us with a very informative walkabout of the Centre. The Pathology Museum, as it originally began, started collecting specimens in 1919 and to date has collected approximately 4500 specimens. The collection spans several rooms, the curation of which proved to be sensible and scientific, organised and ordered by body part and organ as well as disease type.  With a view into both common and unusual causes of death, at least half the collection is from cancer patients, and there are also numerous TB related specimens. The collection also highlights changing attitudes to causes of death – for instance, Dr Yeats attributed the gap in their collection of early AIDS related specimens to a lack of knowledge and wariness of the virus at the time.

The Centre started a large project six years ago, aiming to digitize the entire collection. All archives and catalogues are on the website The website provides updates and links as well as information on patients, whilst withholding any details which may lead to identification. In the physical display there is no labeling next to the specimens; all labeling is online. This makes the website a very important extension of the collection. The website tries to avoid sensationalism because it has a very practical purpose of providing detailed archival information. Dr Yeats added that the Centre is in the process of improving the website to make it more user-friendly. Currently the website bares resonance with little wonder; those who are already interested in the subjects may access the site and find much information, but the site does not attract those who do not have an initial interest. However, on this latter point, Dr Yeats has begun a program where the public can sponsor a specimen, to encourage greater interest in the collection. The specimens in the space of the Pathology Centre provide the wonder. We were both drawn to and repelled by the organs that were preserved and displayed in such close proximity.

The Centre cannot vouch if everything in the collection was collected with the correct permission, particularly concerning specimens collected in the Centre’s early years. After a post-mortem is done the pathologists need consent from the relatives of the patient to acquire the body parts. Students must also be present during the post-mortem. In Between Subject and Object,  a photographby the British artist Sue Fox, entitled Death Mask (2000), depicts a patient in a mortuary undergoing a post-mortem examination. This work, resulting from hours spent in a local mortuary, stemmed from her particular interest in overcoming her fear of death. It is certainly a fearful thought to imagine one’s organs being treated as objects for examination without the proper consent from the relevant subjects.

With the issues of consent and access in mind, particularly in South Africa, Dr Yeats confirmed that pathologists still keep a record of the patient’s race. Although this may have started as a socio-political practice during apartheid, it has relevance today because patterns of disease are separate along socioeconomic lines and there are biological differences for some diseases such as melanoma.

Exploring the rest of the Pathology Learning Centre, we encountered some interesting and, at times, frightening specimens. These ranged from tape worms, to a foot with gangrene, to a foetus of conjoined twins. Above an entire shelf dedicated to smokers’ black lungs was a piece of humour as dark as the lungs themselves. The sign read: “Each cigarette shortens your life by +/- 11 minutes. Enjoy.”

By chance, we also encountered a display of murder weapons which had been set out for an upcoming open day for high school students. These included a hammer, a rock and a screwdriver. Perhaps the most interesting was the heel of a stiletto high-heel shoe. We were told of how the detectives had searched  for the murder weapon, to discover that the end of a high-heel heel fit perfectly in the hole of a skull, which had been preserved. Between Subject and Object also attempted to engage with the sensitive theme of murder. Such specimens, borrowed from the UCT Digital Pathology Centre, included a heart which showed the trajectory of a bullet through it, and a piece of fabric which had been found in a woman’s throat.This theme was also picked up on, subtly, in the work by Nelson Mukhuba called Skeleton (1985). Despite the playful sculpture itself, Mukhuba was an artist who tragically killed his wife and two daughters and then committed suicide after setting his house and studio alight. Great sensitivity and empathy is required on the part of the curators when displaying work with this history.

The Pathology Centre was very informative and intriguing, particularly for a group such as us who had not studied medicine. We attempted to imagine the narrative of each patient, their treatment, and the procedures – how an individual’s organs become objects for study and education. The archiving process may have begun with an empahsis on practicality but there is a growing effort to ensure the objects are treated and recorded with respect.

Header image: Installation shot of Between Subject and Object by Kathryn Smith, with items on loan from the Digital Pathology Learning Centre, UCT, in the forefront.