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Tattoos That Repel Venomous Creatures! The Tragic Tale of Prince Giolo

By Gemma Angel, on 27 May 2013

Gemma Angel by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

The tattooed body has been an object of spectacle and a source of fascination in Europe for at least 4 hundred years. Tattooed natives captured by European explorers were transported to Europe and put on display as curiosities or ‘sights’ from as early as the middle of the 16th century. In 1566, a tattooed Inuit woman and her child were kidnapped by French sailors and put on display in a tavern in Antwerp, The Netherlands. 10 years later, the sometime pirate and seaman Martin Frobisher returned to England from his voyage to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada with a native man whom he had abducted; this unfortunate individual caused such a stir in London, that Frobisher returned from his second voyage to the region with 3 more Inuit captives, who drew equally fascinated crowds when he landed in Bristol. Sadly, all 3 of his human cargo died shortly after their arrival on British shores, succumbing to common European illnesses against which they had no natural immunity.

A similar fate befell the Miangas islander named Jeoly, who became popularly known as ‘Prince Giolo’ when he arrived in England in 1691. Perhaps the most famous of all the tattooed ‘curiosities’ exhibited in Britain, Jeoly was purchased as a slave by the buccaneer-adventurer William Dampier in Mindanao, the Philippines, in 1690. Having failed in his ambitions to discover unexploited spice and gold wealth in the Spice Islands, Dampier returned to England broke, with only his diaries and his ‘Painted Prince’ to show for travels. On his arrival home, Dampier sold Jeoly on to business interests, and later published his journals under the title A New Voyage Around the World, in 1697. In these diaries, Dampier describes Jeoly’s elaborate tattoos in some detail:

He was painted all down the Breast, between his Shoulders behind; on his Thighs (mostly) before; and the Form of several broad Rings, or Bracelets around his Arms and Legs. I cannot liken the Drawings to any Figure of Animals, or the like; but they were very curious, full of great variety of Lines, Flourishes, Chequered-Work, &c. keeping a very graceful Proportion, and appearing very artificial, even to Wonder, especially that upon and between his Shoulder-blades […] I understood that the Painting was done in the same manner, as the Jerusalem Cross is made in Mens Arms, by pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment. [1]

Prince Giolo, 1692

Playbill advertising ‘Prince Giolo’ in London, 1692.
Etching by John Savage.
Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia.

Jeoly was put on display ‘as a sight’ at the Blue Boar’s Head Inn in Fleet Street in June 1692. A number of copies of the playbill advertising his public appearances survive (pictured above). The original advertisement includes a detailed etching of Jeoly by John Savage, showing the tattoos over the front of his body, arms and legs, which resemble traditional Micronesian tattoos of the Caroline and Palau Islands. [2] As well as this striking image, a somewhat embellished story of his life was printed beneath the illustration. Interestingly, this accompanying text ascribes potent protective and healing powers to Jeoly’s tattoos, claiming that his people believed them to be a defense against ‘venomous creatures’:

The Paint it self is so durable, that nothing can wash it off, or deface the beauty of it: It is prepared from the Juice of a certain Herb or Plant, peculiar to that Country, which they esteem infallible to preserve humane Bodies from the deadly poison or hurt of any venomous Creatures whatsoever.

Whilst tattooing was considered to possess magical, protective and medicinal properties in many cultures, it is more than likely that the stories claiming that Jeoly’s tattoos repelled venomous creatures were dreamed up by his exhibitors, rather than having any genuine basis in his own native belief system. Dampier himself remarked upon the ‘Romantick stories’ which circulated in England about Jeoly’s origins, openly ridiculing the marketing campaign:

In the little printed Relation that was made of him when he was shown for a Sight in England, there was a romantick Story of a beautiful Sister of his a Slave with them at Mindanao; and of the Sultan’s falling in Love with her; but they were Stories indeed. They reported also that this Paint was of such Virtue, that Serpents, and venomous Creatures would flee from him, for which reason, I suppose, they represented so many Serpents scampering about in the printed Picture that was made of him. But I never knew of any Paint of such Virtue: and as for Jeoly, I have seen him as much afraid of Snakes, Scorpions, or Centapees, as my self. [3]

In the lower foreground of the illustration, a variety of reptiles and scorpions can be seen fleeing from Jeoly’s feet, his tattoos apparently acting as some kind of aposematic deterrent. Tragically however, Jeoly’s tattoos could not protect him from the foreign infections that he was exposed to in England; he died of smallpox in Oxford sometime in 1693. Although his grave is not marked, and his name does not appear in the Parish register, Jeoly is thought to be buried in St Ebbe’s Churchyard. After his death, a fragment of his tattooed skin was removed and preserved for the Anatomy School collections at Oxford University by the surgeon Theophilius Poynter. This skin fragment was recorded in a list of ‘Anatomical Rarities’ in the Appendix of John Pointer’s 4 volume catalogue for his Musaeum Pointerianum, the cabinet of curiosities he left to St. John’s College Oxford in 1740. [4] Although the skin did not survive, having been lost by the early 20th century, this appears to be the first documented instance of the collection and preservation of tattooed human skin as an anatomical curiosity in England.

Jeoly’s tragic story of enslavement, forced re-location to Europe, public exhibition for profit, fatal illness, and the preservation of his tattooed skin for display as an anatomical rarity, speaks of the foreign body on multiple levels. From the 16th century onwards, the tattooed body of the native became a powerful symbol of foreignness, that could reliably draw curious European crowds and turn a profit for unscrupulous entrepreneurs; but the consequences for displaced foreigners like Frobisher’s Inuits and Dampier’s ‘Painted Prince’ were grave indeed. Exposed to invisible and deadly foreign bodies such as measles and smallpox, they died far from home, unable to fight off common European illnesses against which they had no natural defences.


References:

[1] William Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World, ed. N. M. Penzer (London: Adam & Charles Black), 1937, p. 344.

[2] See Tricia Allen, “European Explorers and Marquesan Tattooing: The Wildest Island Style” in D.E. Hardy (ed) Tattootime Volume V: Art from the Heart, (1991) pp. 86-101; also Kotondo Hasebe, “The Tattooing of the Western Micronesians” in The Journal of the Anthropological Society of Tokyo Vol. XLIII No.s 483-494 (1928), pp. 129-152 (in Japanese).

[3] Dampier, A New Voyage Around the World, p.346.

[4] Geraldine Barnes “Curiosity, Wonder and William Dampier’s Painted Prince“, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2006), p. 32 & 43.

Painted Skins & Butterfly Wings

By Gemma Angel, on 1 April 2013

Gemma Angelby Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

When I first began my doctoral research into tattoo preservation three and a half years ago, I assumed that tattoo collections such as those held by the Science Museum in London were rare. Whilst collections of inked human skin are most definitely unusual, I was soon surprised and intrigued to discover that such objects exist in almost every museum archive, university anatomy department, or pathology collection that I have visited over the course of my research. The largest collections, of which the Wellcome Collection is the major exemplar, are dry-preserved and date from the 19th century – similar collections can be found across Europe, and the MNHN in Paris has a collection of 56 tattoos which are very similar to those in the Wellcome collection. Historically, these collections may be medical, anthropological, or criminological in origin.

In anatomy and pathology collections, tattoo specimens tend to be wet-preserved and date more recently, usually from the early part of the 20th century anywhere up to around the 1980s. But why are these objects preserved in anatomy and pathology departments at all? There is of course nothing pathological about tattooed skin in itself – so it seems strange that specimens like the one pictured below are displayed alongside other pathological skin specimens such as cutaneous anthrax, fibromas, keloids and glanders. What, if anything, can be learned from these tattoos in medical terms? Or are these striking collections of decorated human skin merely objects of curiosity? Often, the simple answer is that they are a little bit of both…

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections. Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

The collection of tattoos pictured here are a case in point. These particular tattoos belonged to one individual, whose very brief case notes have been recorded and retained along with the specimen in UCL Pathology Collections. The notes provide an intriguing glimpse into the life of the individual to whom the tattoos belonged, as well as revealing something of the clinical interests and collecting practices of the doctor who preserved them:

From a man aged 79 years who had earned his living for many years as the Tattooed Man in a circus. His entire body, except for the head and neck, hands and soles of his feet, was covered with elaborate tattoo designs. He died of peritonitis due to a perforation of an anastomatic ulcer … In tattooing, fine particles of pigment are introduced through the skin, taken up by histiocytes and become lodged in the tissue spaces of the dermis. Pigment also passes to the regional lymph glands via the lymphatics. In this case, all the superficial lymph nodes were heavily pigmented.

It is clear from these brief comments that the nature and extent of this man’s tattoos were indeed of anatomical interest to the medical practitioner: The tattooed man had been so extensively tattooed that gradual migration of ink particles resulted in the collection of pigment in the lymph glands. This demonstrates that although tattoo ink is trapped permanently under the skin following healing, it does actually travel within the body over time, filtering into the body’s tissue drainage system, and collecting in the lymph glands. Whilst this is certainly an interesting anatomical observation, it is not the pigmented lymph glands that the doctor has chosen to preserve, but rather the tattooed skin itself. Without these accompanying case notes, we would never have known that this man’s tattoos had exerted any effect on another of the body’s organs and systems at all.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin specimen Z6,  showing tattoos of a butterfly and a flying fish.UCL Pathology Collections.Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin
specimen Z6, showing tattoos of a
butterfly and a flying fish.
UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

It would be equally impossible to know whether or not these were the only tattoos he possessed – or indeed, if they all necessarily belonged to the same person. There are strong stylistic similarities between the butterfly motifs, suggesting the work of a single tattooist, or perhaps that the individual motifs were part of a larger design. But just how large or complex the design may have been, we certainly cannot tell just by looking at these 5 small tattoos. We know that they belonged to a 79-year-old man, who made his living as a Tattooed Man, only because the doctor tells us so. He or she also tells us that his body was covered in tattoos – yet only 5 small pieces have been preserved. Five carefully selected motifs, chosen by the doctor from an already complete collection, which provided the livelihood and told the life story of one unnamed man. What selection criteria did the pathologist adopt when deciding which tattoos to preserve, and which to consign to the grave? The manner in which the specimens have been excised and mounted are strikingly reminiscent of a lepidopterist‘s collection of butterflies – could this reflect the personal collecting interests of the pathologist, or perhaps even the Tattooed Man himself? Both the pathologist and Tattooed Man alike chose these butterflies – did they also share a passion for lepidoptery?

Many people will be familiar with the kind of insect specimen displays that are a staple of natural history collections – the old 19th century museum cases containing neat rows of pinned and mounted moths and butterflies, neatly organised according to subspecies and morphological characteristics. The tattooed butterflies share some remarkable similarities with these entomology collections; they are arranged one above another, and “pinned” to a support with small surgical stitches. Unusually for specimens found in pathology collections, this support is a slightly translucent black. This appears to be a deliberate choice on the part of the pathologist – the black perspex provides a contrasting ground for the display of tattoos on opposite sides of the vitrine, such that they do not visually detract from one another. These aesthetic choices suggest a nuanced interest in the collection and display of these specimens, which goes far beyond a straightforward medical interest in the anatomy of the tattoo. From the limited case notes and analysis of the specimen itself, we can learn something about the pathologist’s interest in the tattoo, but we are still no closer to being able to answer the fundamental question – why collect tattoos at all?

Butterfly display at UCL's Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

Lepidoptera display at UCL’s Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

There is no part of the body able to register the history of a life lived so much as the skin: wrinkles, scars and lines all map out our lives on the surface of our bodies as we age. The tattoo reinforces this unique capacity of the skin to record the traces of our experience, in the conscious act of permanently inscribing memory in skin. The pathologist, uniquely acquainted with death by virtue of their specialism, is perhaps best positioned amongst medical professionals to appreciate the peculiar relationship of the tattoo with mortality. It is a trace of the subjectivity of the deceased that is capable of outliving them, akin to a photograph or written memoir. From this point of view, it no longer seems surprising that tattoos are so often found in pathology collections; perhaps the pathologist who collected the Tattooed Man’s butterflies simply wished to preserve a small part of a colourful and remarkable life.

 

Toxic Tattoos: Mercury Based Pigments in the 19th and 20th Centuries

By Gemma Angel, on 4 February 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

In January this year, myself and fellow Research Engager Sarah Chaney went to visit the UCL Geology Collections, to see if there were any mineral or rock samples in the collection that would fit in with our upcoming cross-collections exhibition, Foreign Bodies. Neither of us being geologists, we didn’t have particularly high expectations – how interesting can rocks be, really? As it turned out, the answer to that question is – very! We spent a fascinating hour in the Rock Room, where we quickly realised that there were many specimens that could be interpreted as foreign bodies in one way or another: The fossilised forms of plants and animals in rock; a rusted nail fused into a lump of lava; and perhaps the ultimate foreign body, a beautifully patterned fragment of meteorite.

One particular sample drew my attention – a surprisingly heavy lump of purplish-red rock with pretty pink and bright red veins (pictured below). When I asked if I could have a closer look, I was told that I would have to wear gloves to handle this piece of rock, as it was in fact toxic. The rock sample was cinnabar, the common ore of mercury. I am well aware of the toxicity of mercury from my own research – gloves are also required when I’m handling preserved tattooed human skins as part of my work at the Science Museum archives. It is speculated that one of the substances used in the dry-preservation process of human skin is mercuric sulphide, and many of the specimens betray the typical orange-red staining that this chemical causes. But there is another unexpected connection between mercury and my research. Cinnabar has been used to make bold red pigments since antiquity – and this pigment was also historically used in European tattooing.

Cinnabar ore and powder (8.5% Hg) sample, in the UCL Rock Room.
UCL Geology Collections.

 

Red mercuric sulphide occurs naturally, and has been manufactured for use as a pigment since the early Middle Ages. The pigment was referred to interchangeably as vermilion or cinnabar, although vermilion became the more commonly used term by the 17th century. [1] Vermilion is now the standard English name given to red artists’ pigment based on artificially produced mercuric sulphide. [2] Since the toxic effects of mercury were historically well known, it might seem strange that cinnabar was used in tattooing at all. In fact, mercury has been used in medicine to treat a range of ailments throughout history, most notably syphilis. In European tattooing, red pigments were not commonly used pre-20th century, with red inks tending to be used sparingly for small areas of embellishment.

Most cinnabar was mined in China and by the mid 19th century, Chinese vermilion was generally considered to be the purest form, producing a superior hue to the European variety. The cinnabar ore on which vermillion production depended was costly; as a result, European vermilion was often mixed with inexpensive materials including brick, orpiment, iron oxide, Persian red, iodine scarlet, and minium (red lead). Whilst these additives also produced a bright red pigment, their relative impermanence made it an inferior choice for artists’ colours.

This may explain why there is marked variability amongst preserved tattoos containing red inks, in terms of both permanence and vibrancy of colour: The more commonly available and cheaper European variety of vermilion used by some 19th century tattooists likely contained additives which reduced colour saturation, and made the pigment more susceptible to light-degradation over time. The Wellcome Collection possesses only a handful of tattoos containing red dye, and most of these are very degraded, such that little colour is visible. In these cases, the red has often faded far more dramatically than the black ink used in the same tattoos. However, there are one or two preserved specimens containing exceptionally bright ink, which has lost none of its vivid red colour, an example of which can be seen below.

Tattooed human skin with bold red pigment, likely cinnabar.
Science Museum object no. A687. Photograph © Gemma Angel,
courtesy of the Science Museum London.

 

Since heavy mineral pigments do not generally lose saturation over time, it is possible to speculate that the bold red ink seen here very likely contains a high concentration of cinnabar, although it is impossible to know for certain without physical testing. There are, however, historical references to the use of mercury-based pigments in tattooing, most of which can be found in 20th century medical journals. As may be expected, these sources focus on the toxic effects of cinnabar-based tattoo pigments. In particular, mercury dermatitis in tattoos was sometimes reported during the early-mid 20th century, often many years after the tattoo was acquired by the patient.

In 1930, one such case appeared in the Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology, written by Dr. Paul Gerson Unna. His patient, a 63-year-old man who had been tattooed in his youth, suddenly developed itching, swelling and blistering in the red portions of the tattoo, following a mercury-based treatment for haemorrhoids. Three years later, Dr. D. B. Ballin reported a case in which a young male patient had developed itching, swelling and oozing in the red portions of a tattoo, 2 years after he had been tattooed. The patient was treated by the removal of the affected areas using a dermal punch, and the tattooed skin samples were sent for histological testing; however, the resultant scar tissue in the punched areas later developed the same reaction.

Photograph from Ballin’s 1933 report,
Cutaneous Hypersensitivity to Mercury from Tattooing
Caption reads: “Forearm of patient showing sensitivity
to mercury as a result of tattooing.”

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, cases of mercurial sensitivity and dermatitis in red tattoos appear sporadically in the medical literature, [4] though the apparent causes of the onset of symptoms vary. According to Keiller and Warin:

In some cases the use of mercurial applications elsewhere has led to the development of sensitivity and the red areas of the tattoo have subsequently become swollen. Other cases are reported in which the sensitivity has developed spontaneously. [5]

Interestingly, there were also reports of the apparent ‘positive’ effects of cinnabar tattoo pigments in cases of cutaneous syphilis during the early 20th century. It was observed that the red portions of a tattoo were seldom effected by syphilis sores – even in cases where adjacent areas of skin tattooed in black ink were engulfed by the infection.

 


References:

[1] R. D. Harley: Artists’ Pigments c.1600-1835: A Study in English Documentary Sources, (1982) Butterworth Scientific, p.125.

[2] Rutherford J. Gettens et. al. : ‘Vermilion and Cinnabar’, in Studies in Conservation, Vol. 17 No. 2. (May 1972), p.45. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1505572

[3]  D. B. Ballin: ‘Cutaneous Hypersenistivity to Mercury From Tattooing’, in Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology, Vol. 27, No.2 (February 1933), pp.292-294.

[4] See, for example: Howard I. Goldberg: ‘Mercurial Reaction in a Tattoo’, in Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 80 (Feb. 1 1959), pp.203-204. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1830587/ ; also R. A. G. Lane et. al.: ‘Mercurial Granuloma in a Tattoo’, in Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 70 (May 1954), pp.546-548. Available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1825326/

[5] F. E. S. Keiller & R.P. Warin: ‘Mercury Dermatitis in a Tattoo: Treated With Dimercaprol’, in The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, 5020 (Mar. 23, 1957), p.678. Available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20361174

[6] For more on the history of tattooing and skin disease, see Gemma Angel: ‘Atavistic Marks and Risky Practices: the Tattoo in Medico-Legal Debate 1850~1950’, in J. Reinarz & K. Siena (eds.) A Medical History of Skin: Scratching The Surface, Pickering Chatto, (2013) pp.165-179.

A Dark Chapter in Tattoo History: Nazi Prisoner Tattoos

By Gemma Angel, on 28 January 2013

  by Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

Over the course of the past 3 years working on the history of preserved tattooed human skin, I have frequently met with difficult questions: Material and conservation concerns pose the question how were they preserved? Historical and anthropological approaches lead me to ask why were they collected? – which of course raises the inevitable consideration of who were these people? Who did the tattoos belong to in life, and who collected them postmortem? This has proven to be the most thorny question of all – identifying both the tattooees and the collectors of tattooed skin is challenging in itself – but quite often it is the relationship between these two groups that raises the most controversial issues.

Frequently, a relationship of power and domination emerges, in which one group has the authority to study, scrutinize, classify – and ultimately, to dissect and preserve – the bodies of others under their institutional control. This is certainly the case for tattoos collected during the late 19th century by physicians and criminologists, who studied the tattoos of criminals and military personnel in prisons, barracks and hospitals. The criminals, soldiers and common men in these institutions very likely did not give consent for their tattoos to be excised and preserved after death; a practice that was rarely questioned during the late 19th century.

Ilse Koch was the wife of Karl Otto Koch,
Kommandant of the Buchenwald and Madjanek
concentration camps. She was convicted of war
crimes in 1947 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The collecting of tattooed human skin – both for research purposes and as a kind of fetishized collector’s item – tailed off dramatically after the end of the second World War in the wake of revelations of Nazi concentration camp atrocities. Reports emerged from Buchenwald of the manufacture of everyday items such as gloves, knife sheaths, book-bindings and lampshades from the skins of murdered inmates.[1] In particular, stories of the collection of tattooed human skin, removed from the bodies of inmates at the behest of Ilse Koch, the wife of Kommandant Karl Otto Koch, caused a scandal in the Allied press. Although photographs documenting some of these objects were taken when the camps were liberated, no other material evidence of them was recovered to be entered into Koch’s trial at Dachau in 1947, or later at her second trial at Augsburg in 1950. Without material proof, Koch could not be convicted of the charges relating to the human skin objects.

The Nazis did not just collect the tattoos of prisoners as grotesque trophies of war, however – they also used tattooing as a weapon of dehumanization and control. From May 1940, prisoner numbers were introduced for all concentration camp prisoners deemed capable of work at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex – those sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered and did not receive numbers. These numbers were initially sewn onto prisoner uniforms. However, as the daily mortality rate increased and clothes were removed, this soon proved impractical as a way of identifying the dead. Tattooing of prisoner numbers was thus introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941. Tattoos were applied to either the inner or outer side of the left forearm on registration at the camp. More than 400,000 inmates were forcibly tattooed in this way at Auschwitz.

Specimen No. A.5.2 – Identification Tattoo Mark. Nazi prisoner tattoo, number A-25374.
UCL Pathology collections. Image © Gemma Angel.

 

The SS introduced number sequences beginning with ‘A’ in mid-May 1944 – 20,000 men and 30,000 women were assigned numbers in this series. One of these women was Holocaust survivor Henia Bryer, who was liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Henia still bears the number ‘A26188’ inscribed on her inner arm. She described her reasons for keeping her prisoner tattoo in a recent BBC programme:

I was offered by various surgeons to remove it, and they were very glad to do it, but I wanted to keep it on. So that when people say that it didn’t exist – these days, that the Holocaust didn’t exist, it’s a figment of your imagination – I wanted to show them. And many people don’t even know what this number means, still today. I wanted to keep it as a witness … as a sign that it really happened.

Tattoos carry with them a powerful capacity to evoke memory, and this quality is often a motivating factor for many people who choose to become tattooed with marks commemorating important life events or rites of passage. For those, like Henia, who have been forcibly tattooed, the mark may come to stand as testament to a personal and collective history of suffering and survival. For other Holocaust survivors, these marks became unwelcome reminders of trauma, and were removed by surgeons after the war. Some of these tattoos were retained in pathology collections, perhaps for reasons similar to those described by Henia above – ‘to stand witness’ to Nazi war crimes that should never be excised from the historical memory.

Original documentation record for object no. A.5.2. The provenance and date of the specimen is unknown. UCL Pathology Collections.

 

Whilst working with the UCL Pathology collections, I came across such a tattoo: a small skin specimen in a perspex vitrine, tattooed with the number ‘A-25374’ (pictured above, top). The only documentation associated with this object is the brief catalogue entry: “A tattooed identification number from the forearm of an inmate of Belsen concentration camp during World War II.” No other information is known about this individual – since only inmates of Auschwitz were tattooed, it is very likely that this person, like Henia, endured the “death marches” from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they were later liberated. Many Nazi records were destroyed at the end of the war, and the many thousands of files that do remain are scattered across Europe – even today, it is difficult to trace the identities of inmates based on their tattooed prisoner numbers.

Nor is it known exactly where this specimen was acquired, or who preserved it. Over the past 25 years, UCL pathology collections have absorbed a number of collections belonging to other London medical institutions. A large number of the pathology specimens received by UCL arrived in a state of neglect, requiring intensive conservation and re-cataloguing – a task made all the more difficult for the lack of associated documentation. Specimens such as the one pictured above may make us uneasy, particularly when they are unprovenanced and inherited. Their histories are lost and fraught with ethical entanglements – but they cannot simply be discarded, and perhaps should not be hidden away. Henia reminds us of the need to remember past trauma, and of the role that material culture can play in this process. Nazi prisoner tattoos are a powerful reminder of the lived experience of war and genocide. As objects, their presence in pathology collections is undoubtedly troubling; yet they remain as an important testament to the horrors of the Holocaust – they are fragments of lives that should never be forgotten.

 


References:

[1] Flint Whitlock: The Beasts of Buchenwald, (2011) Cable Publishing, p.81. See also, Alexandra Przyrembel: ‘Transfixed by an Image: Ilse Koch, the ‘Komandeuse of Buchenwald’, in German History, Vol. 19 No. 3, (2001).

[2] See also: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.