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Medicine Meets the Museum
Med students hone their observational skills in the gallery

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, medical students study a painting, blocking out the figures so they can concentrate on the background.
Second-year medical student Rush Chewning peered at the reclining figure. The man’s eyes were closed, his head thrust back, his right hand hung limply at his side. “He’s either sleeping or exhausted,” Chewning speculated, as his fellow students looked on. “He’s not dead because he’s got good color. He’s either wounded or out cold.”

“He’s not wounded,” another student said. “He doesn’t appear to be in pain.” Others noted the woman at his side. “She has a certain lightness to her face. She seems radiant.” Still others studied the bare-breasted woman. “She’s a little disturbing. Are those fish scales starting at the hip?”

The subjects of this evolving diagnosis were not living people, but figures in a painting. The setting was not a hospital ward, but a light-filled gallery at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where on four separate weekend afternoons this spring, more than 70 School of Medicine students gathered to observe selected works of art. Their visits were part of a pilot program designed to help improve visual observational skills using art as a medium.

The project, developed by Sarah Clever, an assistant professor in General Internal Medicine, and BMA guide Marcia Gregory, was backed with administrative support from the office of the dean of students. Three works were featured: a 1938 mask from African Guinea, a painting by American artist Horace Pippin depicting a French village devastated by war, and “Rinaldo and Armida,” the large canvas, left, with the slumbering warrior, a 1629 work by Anthony Van Dyck. All had been selected by Clever and a few of her colleagues from a short list developed by Gregory.

Floating an e-mail to the entire student body describing the project, Cleaver never expected many takers. But within the first hour alone, she had 25. In all, 83 signed up.

If nothing else, the response illustrates students’ hunger for the arts amid the all-consuming world of science and medicine. “We’re starved for anything that’s not medicine,” said Jessica Perniciano, a second-year student who as an undergrad majored in British literature. “This seemed like a unique opportunity to get out of the focused world of the hospital and bring in some culture.”

But as Gregory pointed out, medicine and art are not as disparate as they may seem. Like the human body, “works of art are complex, too. They require careful analysis. They require us to question our assumptions. The museum may be a different setting, but it calls upon the same set of skills.

“I hope these works will be unfamiliar to you,” Gregory continued, before taking the students into the galleries. “We want you to look at them as if you are seeing them for the first time.”

Away from the focused world of the hospital, med students connect with art. From left, Payam Mohassel, Pushpa Raja, Noy Bassik, Jessica Perniciano and Rush Chewning.

The students would be given absolutely no background, but with minimal guidance from Gregory, would interpret the works on their own. Gregory, who is manager of docent and tour programs, knew from experience that the Van Dyck, the only one in the museum’s collection, was well suited for the project. “It’s big, it’s one of our treasures, and I knew we could tease out the story.”

That turned out to be true. The students did not know, of course, that the painting depicts an enchantress, Armida, who, sent to kill Rinaldo, a knight in the Crusades, falls in love instead. But they did deduce that a passionate lover had suddenly come upon a sleeping warrior.

Programs such as this are not new. Yale medical students have attended “clinics” at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, and similar courses are in place at Stanford, Cornell and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Even police officers in New York have sharpened observational skills at the Frick Collection, a Manhattan museum.

Clever hopes the pilot program will continue in the fall. It very well may, for evaluations were uniformly positive. Many said they valued developing their own observations. “Often, translating images into words is challenging,” one student wrote, “however, it is a very useful skill for physicians-to-be.”

The most enjoyable aspect of the tour? “Seeing paintings/sculptures in a new light. I normally don’t spend much time really looking at art,” said one. Another simply wrote: “The art—beautiful!”

—Anne Bennett Swingle



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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