International Museum of Surgical Science hosts the Excavating History Collective

Rebecca Keller, Annie Heckman and ten other artists respond to the IMSS in “Body of Work.”

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Rebecca Keller, Imhotep from the "Attributes of the Gods" series, 2011.

Rebecca Keller, Imhotep from the "Attributes of the Gods" series, 2011. Photograph: Courtesy of the IMSS


Though I’ve passed the International Museum of Surgical Science (1524 N Lake Shore Dr) plenty of times, I never realized the building is an imitation of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles. That might be because architect Howard Van Doren Shaw gave the 1917 mansion an extra floor to pacify its status-conscious original owner, explains Liene Bosquê.

On October 23, I attended a tour that Brazilian artist Bosquê and other members of the Excavating History Collective gave of their IMSS exhibition, “Body of Work.” Led by Rebecca Keller, the collective has infiltrated the entire museum—even the bathrooms—leaving site-specific sculptures, videos, sound works and other projects that respond to the IMSS’s exhibits.

“Body of Work” breathes life into a challenging collection, which seeks to cover 4,000 years of medical history and ends up feeling a little all over the place. Founded by Dr. Max Thorek in the early 1950s, the IMSS supplements its informative exhibits with odd artifacts such as gallstones, paintings of pioneering medical procedures, Napoleon’s death mask and a talking mannequin of an early American apothecary. (The museum’s fine contemporary-art series, “Anatomy in the Gallery,” is distinct from the rest of its exhibits and has no connection to “Body of Work.”) In the Hall of Immortals, 12 stone statues of individuals who made crucial medical advances tower over visitors.

Keller’s installation Attributes of the Gods (pictured) invests the slightly goofy Hall of Immortals with dignity. “I wanted to play on the idea of doctors as gods,” the artist says. She devised attributes—symbols akin to those that identify saints in European art—for all 12 doctors and scientists, and displays them on the statues. The IMSS bravely let her cover Joseph Lister’s hands with coal tar soap, signifying the English surgeon’s discovery of an early antiseptic.

While Attributes of the Gods reminds viewers that some doctors make superhuman efforts to help their patients, Keller brings medical professionals back down to earth by scattering handwritten doctor jokes throughout the galleries.

“Body of Work” thrives on serendipity: Look up, and you might see a poem selected by artist-writer Kristin Ginger, whose bibliotherapy installation dispenses literary prescriptions in the museum library. In the bathrooms, Amber Ginsburg provides ceramic casts of doorknobs as “worry stones,” she explains, comforting those paranoid about contagion. The exhibition has surprised its creators as well. As Lindsey Thieman, the museum’s manager of exhibits and programs, helped the artists comb the basement, attic and other storage spaces for inspiration, they stumbled upon items like a 1953 film documenting a trepanation in Peru, which was carried out with replicas of historic instruments.

That operation raises ethical questions that interest Annie Heckman, who will study trepanation at the IMSS during the next couple of months. The collective is in residence at the museum this fall, and some of the artists will return often to alter their projects. Heckman’s evolving animation and installation are among several works that consider patients’ perspectives.

Focusing on neglected voices from the past is typical of Excavating History’s practice, which Keller began as a solo artist. Her 2006 project at the Glessner House Museum, “Home/Work, House/Work: A Meditation on Labor,” exposed the harsh lives of turn-of-the-20th-century domestic servants. That show led to Keller founding a class about “excavating history” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; eight “Body of Work” artists are her former students.

Unlike historians, Keller says, artists “can go places where the facts are not documentable. They can be more imaginative.”

“Body of Work” ends January 15.

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