Hidden in plain view: the skin in science and culture

An old lady sitting at her dressing table mirror holding flowers, two younger women are putting feathers in her hair

The history of the human body has lately given particular attention to our organs. The heart, the liver, the brain have all become the objects of new academic study. The cultural history of medicine has assumed that the history of the whole body differs from the history of its parts, a conclusion that especially applies to the historical understanding of human skin.

The largest and most visible of our organs, skin has historically enjoyed an independent life. Before the development of dermatology, what covers us was regarded as a cultural and scientific excrescence, a cloth that had to be opened up and removed in order to gain access to the hidden innards. Only recently, as the result of looking at the layers of the skin detached from the body, has skin come to occupy a privileged position within the medical sciences. The first treatises entirely related to its diseases were published at the beginning of the 18th century, and dermatology, as we know it today, was only established as a professional discipline in the 19th century, in connection with the rise of venereal diseases.

Sometimes the body has been considered without a skin; at other times the skin has been thought of on its own. Early anatomy used classical or sacred iconology to conclude that, deep down, there was a perfect, ideal body. Dermatology, by contrast, concentrated on the pathological features expressed at the surface. Through either colour plates or wax models, the naturalistic representation of the skin became an educational tool and, very often, a matter of public entertainment and public display. Scientific readings of the skin went hand-in-hand with popular prejudice, moral rules and social indoctrination; accurate depictions were combined with a taste for the exotic or unusual.

From the 18th century, the skin was given a relevant place within the new systems of thought. The claim that our ideas begin with sensory impressions - with what we see, hear and feel - turned the skin into the ultimate frontier between knowledge and ignorance, life and death.

It is difficult to find any place where the bonds between science and society, nature and culture, and even mind and body, have been more visible than the skin. From the alleged powers of the maternal imagination to produce birthmarks to the supposed ability of hysterical patients to impress the name of their disease on their skin, the body's surface has always been linked to aesthetic values, scientific implications and cultural connotations. This is true of skin decoration, deformation, ageing and illness, as well as orifices, scarification and tattooing. From sacred stigmata to beauty spots, the marks of the skin might contain clinical information, but around its hair, spots, scars, wrinkles or blemishes, there have always been many other stories of individual actions or collective practices to tell.

From the representation of the body without skin in the early 16th century, to the academic scrutiny of the skin without a body from the mid-19th century onwards, the understanding of this organ has always been tied to personal feelings, collective anxieties and cultural values. Usually treated with care in private and disrespected in public, the skin - the pellis, la peau, la piel - remains even today full of social and cultural connections. The interior and the exterior, the normal and the pathological, life and death, structure and function, integrity and rupture, combine around this traditionally forgotten organ of the human body.

Javier Moscoso
Research Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Spanish National Research Council
Co-curator of the 'Skin' exhibition

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