High-brow healing: How ancient art is co-opted for modern medicine
Museums aren’t the only organizations that use ancient objects to teach modern lessons. So why would a pharmaceutical company reproduce sculptures made in exotic peoples in distant times? The Logan Museum has a growing collection of reproduced ancient American objects that were manufactured as drug advertisements.By the 1970s, ancient American art – especially from Mexico, Central America, and the Andes – became popular among affluent American and European collectors. In the wake of the golden era of the World’s Fairs and with increasing ease of access abroad, wealthy families had been collecting the art of the pre-Columbian Americas for burgeoning museum and private collections. At the same time, widely distributed illustrated books also introduced these cultures to the masses. This growing interest was mirrored in a marketing move by the pharmaceutical company Schering in collaboration with Medipro, a custom sales promotions firm.
Caption: A 2000-year-old West Mexican figurine used to advertise the dermatological cream Valisone.
Around 1973, Medipro produced two “premium” lines of eight figurines each for the drug company. These promotional gifts featured reproduced ceramic sculptures of humans with visible illnesses that could be cured by Schering products. They even reproduced a shaman figurine and advertised with the tagline “from medicine man to man of medicine.” Each replica sat atop a wooden block with a label explaining the illness, culture, and time period, along with a reference to the relevant Schering drug. All the figures are copies of those from ancient cultures such as the South American Moche (1-700 C.E.) and the West Mexican Nayarit (300-1 B.C.E.). One line of figures promoted the skin cream Valisone and included people with nonspecific skin lesions, leishmaniasis, and more. The other line promoted a mental health product Etrafon and featured figures marked “dual emotional distress” or “anxiety/depression.”The folks at Medipro figured that pharmaceutical representatives could give physicians a collectible figurine during each office visit. This would generate interest in the reps’ visits to doctors and help doctors get excited about Schering products. Medipro’s founder Henry Webel was a world traveler who believed doctors preferred sophisticated cultural items rather than the products his competitors offered. Webel thought “promotional medical art” could serve as an attractive conversation piece on a physician’s shelf, but that the art would also show patients and doctors that these illnesses had been around for thousands of years.
Caption: The Logan Museum’s growing collection of Medipro figurines, featuring illnesses, mental health issues, and healing scenes.
Displaying replicas as conversation pieces and likening ancient depictions to medical matters are purposes not so different from how the museum uses objects like these today. We, too, sell reproduction sculptures for popular consumption through the museum gift shop. We pull out ancient depictions of illness and suffering to teach students about health and healing in the past for courses on medical anthropology and human biology. And we even find great value in Medipro’s products for asking students to consider how representations can be co-opted in surprising ways.
What do you think of these objects? Do you applaud the effort to enhance appreciation of “foreign” culture by linking it to modern medicine? Or did Medipro unabashedly decontextualize ancient tomb objects that were never meant to serve as sales promotions? These ideas are worth debating, as we employ a liberal arts approach to questioning the many ways in which we co-opt and appropriate other cultures.