The connection between museums and medicine does not spring to mind, although there is a historical link. Some museums were originally ecclesiastical institutions that ministered to the sick, such as the Hôtel Dieu in Beaune or the Museo di San Marco in Florence. At Beaune, the sick were placed before Rogier van der Weyden’s impressive Last Judgment for solace.
One of the best attempts to fuse the art museum and the medical institution is in Ivan Gaskell’s Vermeer’s Wager in which he says the following:
“Many analogies can be drawn between art museums and hospitals: more, probably, than between art museums and the institutions with which, as sites of scholarship, they are most often compared: universities. One analogy concerns the techniques of education of their staffs. Pierre Bourdieu has described the differences in education conferred by medical facilities of arts and science. He demonstrates that, whereas in the latter the production and reproduction of knowledge are formalized and transmitted rationally, medical education is the acquisition of an internalised set of skills constituting an art. In consequence, the relationships between the teacher-patrons and the pupil-clients differ markedly within the two institutions; Conditions in art museums more closely approximate the medical model than they do those of the arts and science faculties.”
The French sociolinguist Pierre Bourdieu- mentioned in Gaskell’s extract- compared the “great surgeon” to the “supremo” of a hospital department. As Gaskell’s says, we need only substitute “museum director” or “head of curatorial department” for the medical categories. The pupil-clients become interns, or junior members of staff, who follow the teacher-patron on his rounds.
However, I’m now reading about a surgeon who takes his students on walks round the London National Gallery, visiting pictures like patients on morning call. Professor Michael Baum, a cancer expert, brings his diagnostic skills to bear on the problem of interpreting famous works like Piero di Cosimo’s so-called Nymph and Satyr. More generally, Baum stresses the importance of the eye in diagnosis and the art of painting itself.
"Art and medicine have parallel histories: accurate drawings of dissections were crucial for anatomical education, for example, while art therapy has provided patients with powerful cathartic releases. And now when we look with a trained eye, it is clear these artists had considerable medical knowledge and often used it with considerable subtlety."
The quality of perspicacity, not just defined as acuity of vision, but also the act of penetrating beneath the surface is of paramount importance here . As Baum obviously knows, in the early modern period some surgeons and doctors were art admirers and were trained in the analysis of pictures. To them there were parallels between opening up the body to determine the nature of a disease or the cause of death, and stripping back the layers of both paint and meaning in a work in their own collections. It’s true that Baum could be over-interpreting in his artistic/medical exposition of Piero’s painting, but many art historians have been guilty of wielding the scalpel of over-analysis when probing the mysteries of Piero’s work. As for the “waiter’s tip”, I’m in no position to say- not a medical expert. However, I think Baum’s surgical approach is instructive, and I look forward to more diagnoses from the hospital ward of the National Gallery in the future.
 Ivan Gaskell, Vermeer’s Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory and Art Museums, Reaktion, 197-8.