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Exposed secrets of the skin

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Some of the most intriguing items among the more than a million objects collected by Sir Henry Wellcome are his collection of 300 preserved tattooed human skins. The skins were purchased by Peter Johnston-Saint, one of his team of expert collectors, from a Dr La Valette in Paris in 1929.

Little is known about Dr La Valette, although he described himself as an osteologist and is thought to have obtained the specimens through his work at Parisian military establishments and prisons. Some appear to have been carefully surgically removed while others have been hacked from the cadaver without preserving the tattoo intact. The specimens, which until recently were housed in the Science Museum’s medical collection, are mostly French and date from 1850–90.

Most of the tattoos are amateurish and applied with hand-made needles, although a few are examples of early machine-produced work. Many of the designs are of types commonly seen today — nude females, flowers, hearts, regimental symbols and so on. Others are more disturbing, such as one of an apparent auto-abortion.

Most of the tattoo specimens date from the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, suggesting a scholarly interest in the practice of tattooing around this time. From the 1870s criminologists made a link between criminality and tattooing. In his biological explanation of crime, “L’uomo delinquente”, Cesare Lombroso argued that tattoos betrayed delinquents’ atavistic nature.

The skins have been preserved using a traditional arsenic-based tanning process. Although effective, this poses storage and display issues.

Quite what interest — scientific, anthropological or otherwise — Henry Wellcome saw in these is unclear. But these thought-provoking specimens are completely at home in his enormous collection, which ranges from diagnostic dolls to Japanese sex aids and Napoleon’s toothbrush.

The La Valette skins form part of the Wellcome Collection’s free summer exhibition, “Skin”, which runs until 26 September 2010 at 183 Euston Road, London.

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