Views & Reviews Review

A slice of life

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 01 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6794
  1. Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London
  1. wendymoore{at}

Whether in medicine, science, or architecture, slicing can reveal secret order, spill lurid innards, and open new views. Wendy Moore enjoyed an exhibition that looks beneath the surface

We have grown accustomed to seeing beyond the surface of things. Whether we are looking at a cross section of a Chilean mine on the news, an anatomical illustration in a medical textbook, or an ultrasound scan of a baby, technology has made internal views commonplace. Walls and skin no longer hold much mystery.

But a new exhibition at the Architectural Association in London exploring the development of interior images in medicine and architecture has recreated something of the wonder in seeing what lies beneath.

The Slice: Cutting to See brings together models, machines, and works of art from the 18th century to the present across the disciplines of medicine, science, geology, architecture, and art. From wax anatomical models of the body to a bacon slicing machine, from a brain scan to a cross section of the earth’s crust, they all show how the ability to see beneath external surfaces can reveal hidden depths, secret structures, and unknown threats. What seems at first an oddball collection of items on closer inspection suggests some interesting parallels.

Just as the model of a prototype sonar buoy shows a submarine lurking beneath a glass-like sea, so magnetic resonance imaging of a brain—in this case belonging to the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei—reveals a cerebral haemorrhage. A 19th century cross section of the earth’s crust, showing veins of basalt snaking to the surface, echoes the blood vessels in life-like wax and plaster anatomical models of the eye and face that were crafted in the same period. And even the everyday bacon slicer, actually taken from a hospital, is only a more mundane version of the early microtomes used to produce thin slices of human tissue.

The exhibition has been created by D Graham Burnett and Christopher Turner, editors of the New York art magazine Cabinet. They were inspired by the similarities between the slices of human tissue produced by microtomy machines and the work of the late US artist and former architect Gordon Matta-Clark, who cut away sections from houses and other buildings. Burnett, who is professor of the history of science at Princeton University, once worked in a laboratory preparing pancreases from mice for sectioning in a refrigerator sized cryotome. His experience prompted him to research the development of microtomes—Greek for “small” and “cut”—from their first use as instruments for sawing thin slices of wood to their 18th century development into devices to cut transparently thin specimens of human tissue.

Improvements in the engineering of sophisticated chronometers and naval instruments in the 19th century helped create commercial micrometers with ever more precise cutting power and control. Combined with the development of chemical stains and new embedding techniques, such as fixing specimens into blocks of wax or jelly, these enabled doctors to make important advances in pathology, histology, and embryology. The production of rotary microtomes, capable of cutting long ribbons of tissue less than a cell thick, led one scientist, Vannevar Bush, in the 1950s to try to build an “automatic microtome,” which would affix minutely thin slivers of tissue onto 35 mm film, with the aim of viewing movies of the human body through a projector. Bush’s ambition never materialised, though his dream would eventually be realised by the magnetic resonance, computed tomography, and ultrasound scanners of today.

A collection of five microtomes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. Manufactured in the United Kingdom and Germany, the leaders in the technology, they include an ether freezing machine from 1890; a sliding microtome with four knives, made in 1885-95; and a flat-cutting, rocking microtome from 1930.

Although the exhibition is small, medical instruments and models make up about half of the exhibits. Loaned from the Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum, they include a pair of early 19th century male and female wax memento mori models. Viewed from one side the figures are dressed in elegant Regency clothes, like characters from Pride and Prejudice; turned around they reveal naked skeletons more reminiscent of Frankenstein. A silver medal appropriately depicting the head of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, inventor of the scourge of the French revolution, is shown alongside a tonsil guillotine from the 1920s. Both evoke the ambivalence of the cutting edge: Guillotin invented his machine as a humanitarian advance in capital punishment; tonsillectomies have since waned in medical fashion.

With a soundtrack provided by a Surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel, which features a knife slicing into a woman’s eye, and an art installation that comprises an ant colony creating tunnels in sand, the exhibition is quirky and thought provoking rather than roundly informative.

The curators of The Slice are not, of course, the first to explore the connections between architecture and medicine. Leonardo da Vinci likened bodily structures to architectural forms in his anatomical sketches; the 17th century architect and scientist Robert Hooke coined the word “cell” to describe the pores in trees because they reminded him of monks’ cells; and Hooke’s Italian contemporary the physician Marcello Malpighi borrowed architectural terms—beams, levers, ducts, cisterns—to express what he saw through a microscope. But in bringing together these pioneering efforts to reveal the interior, this exhibition reminds us how the human desire to see ever further has advanced discovery in science.


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6794