As the swine flu crisis continues to grip the world – and the media - a new exhibition called ‘Greetings from....historical postcards of illnesses and treatments’ at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam shows how we have always been fascinated by illness and the need to document it, understand it and tell other people about it.
Walking into this exhibition of postcards from the 1890s to the 1930s you are greeted by a blown up image of an African man suffering from elephantiasis, his legs swollen beyond our understanding. How can he live like that, we ask ourselves, how could he survive?
By viewing these conditions, whether on old postcards or the television, we instinctively ask ourselves questions about our own mortality and our own ability to deal with illness.
This exhibition of postcards shows everything from tribal priests in Benin to Chinese dwarves and leprosy sufferers in India. It takes us through the height of the colonial period, when expeditions to far flung countries yielded all sorts of fascination for western Europeans with an innate sense of superiority over those ‘primitive natives’.
Fascination with the exotic
The west’s obsession with the exotic saw the great exhibitions of the late 19th and early 20th century import entire villages from Africa or Borneo and put them on display, much like circus freaks, for the viewing public. And, much like circus freaks, these exotic specimens were treated as ‘other’. Our way of viewing has changed in those years and with it so has our understanding that it is no longer acceptable to make a freakshow of someone's suffering.
However, that fascination with the other, coupled with developments in photography and the need to make a record of what was seen or done, meant that photographs of these ‘natives’ – or the illnesses they suffered from – became very popular as postcards and found themselves sent all over the world, from all over the world.
“We are all bewitched by the far and the exotic, the strange and the odd,” says Marijke Besselink, the curator of this exhibition.
“Elephantiasis still exists [for example], the way we deal with it is now different but still we are looking to one another to see how we deal with sickness and health.”
Marijke sees a clear similarity between these 19th century medical postcards and our current obsession with swine flu.
“We want to have control over it [swine flu] that’s why we see it in the news all the time. People want to have control over a situation – you don’t know what’s going to happen but you have to get a grip on it.”
And a visit to this exhibition clearly underlines the fact that whatever the medium, our fascination with the odd specimens – and weird illnesses - that nature creates will always find a way to be seen, both to satisfy our love of the other and also, at a deeper level, to allow us to learn and protect ourselves from harm, wherever we come from.
The “Greetings From....Historical postcards of illnesses and treatments” at the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum runs until 29 November 2009.
Listen to a report from the museum