Bedside Manor | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Bedside Manor 

Welcome to the National Museum of Hospital and Pharmaceutical History, aka Paul Baxendale's apartment.

If Paul Craig Baxendale didn't have a girlfriend, it'd be easy to think he was trying to scare off women. His bedroom resembles what he calls a "1940s-era convalescent room." A blood-pressure kit and stethoscope lie on a porcelain-coated steel instrument table that doubles as a nightstand. Eye and ear scopes are affixed to the wall within arm's reach of his bed. An old-fashioned X-ray display illuminates a random set of ribs.

"A lot of people who come in are actually kind of horrified that I would live this way," he says, "because they have had very bad experiences in hospitals."

Not Baxendale. He remembers fondly his one and only hospital stay. "It was during a very stressful time for me," he says. "I was failing out of the University of Texas in Austin, my parents were getting divorced, and all of a sudden I came down with appendicitis. I ended up in the hospital, so I had an excuse to be failing out of school. My mom and dad got together for a brief period during that time, and I had doctors and nurses just doting over me. So it was quite a good experience."

Eleven years later the lanky 30-year-old artist is decked out in a white lab coat with Ruth Seeler, MD, stitched on it, giving me a tour of his tribute to institutionalized medicine. He calls it the National Museum of Hospital and Pharmaceutical History. It's open by appointment only (773-394-2974).

There are hospital museums all over the world, in such places as London, Bangalore, the Australian outback, and Indiana. But as far as Baxendale knows, his is the only one with a full-time tenant.

Art and artifacts pertaining to the history of medicine dominate every area of his one-bedroom apartment on Diversey, down to the red cross on the bathroom floor, fashioned out of linoleum tiles. Save for a computer tucked away in the kitchen, there's little to suggest he uses his home as anything other than a display case. A viewing bench in the living room/main exhibition hall is the closest thing he has to a couch.

Among the items in his collection are apothecary bottles, surgical tools (including one labeled "ebony handled nickel plated steel amputation saw from 1890"), 1973 floor plans for an "ideal" hospital that was never built, a 1930s stretcher, and an array of syringes showing the instrument's evolution from hard rubber to glass to plastic.

"I figure almost everybody in the United States is born in a hospital or will die in a hospital or will end up in a hospital at some point," says Baxendale. "I think it's important for people to become familiar with hospitals as institutions and the history of them."

He's happy to do the educating, expounding on everything from the contributions Pyrex has made to the development of medicines (represented by a Lighted Laboratory Glasswares display) to "hospital color theory" (represented by the juxtaposition of a white surgical gown and a teal surgical mask). "White is actually very hard on the eyes, especially in the operating room," he says, explaining the ubiquity of teal scrubs. "You've got the bright operating lights, and it creates all this glare. It's very difficult for surgeons to see. The teal green, on the other hand, serves as a contrast in color to the pinks and reds of flesh and blood."

Baxendale's fascination with institutionalized medicine grew partly out of the pleasure of being laid up for a week in the hospital following his appendectomy, partly out of an interest in medicinal plants, and partly out of a love for the "medical aesthetic," to which he was introduced as a child by a veterinarian uncle in Idaho. "I remember going into his office and the walls were crowded with old bottles of horse pills and strange stuff--big, big veterinary instruments. It looked like an old apothecary. The look of bottles and junk crammed onto the walls stuck with me."

His father worked as a department-store manager, and the family moved from city to city as Baxendale grew up. After high school and his false start at the University of Texas, he studied herbal medicine at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies in Colorado, then moved to San Antonio to attend community college. He spent his weekends at estate sales, raiding dead people's medicine cabinets. He says that with the help of old pharmaceutical catalogs he's been able to date many of the bottles he turned up, most to the 50s and 60s, but a few as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Collecting medical artifacts had become "somewhat of an obsession" by the mid-90s, when Baxendale moved to Houston and began working in an antiques store owned by a retired pharmacist. But he didn't think of showing his collection until a few years later, when he took a job transporting artwork and installing exhibitions for Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. That job, he says, made him "keenly aware" of how to present exhibits in an "aesthetically pleasing" manner; it also gave him access to discarded Plexiglas vitrines and material for building display cases.

Encouraged by his coworkers, he opened the first incarnation of his hospital museum. As word of it spread, his collection grew. He solicited donations from hospitals and continued scouring estate sales, and people began contacting him out of the blue with invitations to rummage through their attics. He also acquired pieces in nontraditional ways--including looting the boarded-up Jefferson Davis Hospital. "I used to dress up in a suit and tie when I went in there," he says. He planned to say he was a contractor or real estate developer if he ran into someone--though luckily he didn't, so he never had to come up with a story for why a contractor or real estate developer would be hauling off, for instance, signs that read Biomedical Instrumentation or instructed patients to leave their gowns open in the back.

Baxendale enrolled in the School of the Art Institute in 2000 and brought the museum to Chicago. Last summer he worked as the assistant curator of a new permanent exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive--"one of the most extensive exhibits on ophthalmic history in the U.S.," the museum's Web site calls it. His professional experience is apparent at home. Certain exhibits--the rotating straitjacket in the living room, the vintage nurse's uniform in the bedroom--are cordoned off by rope. Others, like the "old-time ether pump," are interactive--press a button and watch liquid bubble.

"The use of ether ushered in a new age of surgery," Baxendale says. "Before ether they would get patients drunk on whiskey or bourbon and do the surgery as quickly as possible. When the doctors discovered ether, it allowed them to really slow down surgeries and be a lot more meticulous."

Baxendale says he's interested primarily in the period in medical history "when hospitals were sort of evolving from slaughterhouses, in a way--very dirty places where people more often died than were healed--to when they started becoming really clean, sanitary places. I think it's quite beautiful the way they designed hospitals to look streamlined, the way that they tiled surfaces so they could be easily disinfected." Today, he points out, hospitals tend to eschew institutional interior design in favor of "carpets, couches, bad art prints, and other things" to make patients feel at home. In his view, that's backward--people ought to design their homes to resemble hospitals, not the other way around.

In flyers Baxendale gives out he claims the museum upholds the ideals of a little-known turn-of-the-last-century aesthetic movement called "hospitalism," which was "a reaction to the pollution, stressors, and rampant sickness that plagued Americans through the American industrial age." According to these brochures--one of which is titled "Just the Facts"--adherents believed their domestic surroundings, "if properly outfitted" using the hospital aesthetic, "could provide a healing refuge from the perils of industrial age life."

When I press Baxendale for more information on hospitalism he admits he fabricated the movement as an "excuse" for starting the museum. He says he thought historical context--even a fake one--would lend legitimacy to the museum. He adds that he aims to present an "artistically engaging picture of the history of medicine, one that may be a little different from your typical museum, one that has just a little edge to it." And by that he means he's not a stickler for authenticity.

He concedes that in addition to taking liberties with history, he sometimes passes off art as artifact. "I supplement the museum with things of my own making," he says, including large silk-screened prints of drug labels and what he presents as the last remaining swatches of wallpaper for an operating theater. He adds, "Basically everything I did at the Art Institute fed into this project."

Baxendale has a rationale. He says that without "an unlimited expense account or a group of wealthy trustees" enabling the purchase of expensive antiques, "creative representation of objects or historical occurrences can serve to temporarily fill gaps in a museum's collection, while providing visitors with the information necessary to piece together an engaging historical picture."

Even knowing this, one piece in his collection seems particularly out of place: a stuffed yellow-shafted flicker. It sits atop a display case containing "an army surgeon's field kit from World War I," whose canvas pouch contains suspiciously shiny instruments. Baxendale says he found the dead bird in Greektown and got instructions for preserving it from the "fellow who does taxidermy" at the Field Museum. It wasn't terribly difficult, Baxendale says. As he explains, you just make an incision, skin the bird, rinse it in a special solution, put it in a pillowcase with wood chips and shake it dry, sculpt a foam insert for the body, and sew it back up. "It doesn't have much to do with the museum," he admits, gently petting the stuffed creature's head.

Baxendale likes to give museum visitors a 10-by-14-inch souvenir prescription, on which he scrawls his name with complete disregard for the standard cursive alphabet.

I ask if he ever wanted to be a doctor.

"Kind of," he replies. "There's so much schooling involved--I don't know if I could go through the training. But that does interest me."

I ask what about it interests him.

"I think really the opportunity to help people."

The answer sounds good, just as hospitalism sounded good. But like hospitalism, it turns out not to be true.

"Actually," he confesses, "I'd probably just like to be around all the cool instruments. Yeah, I'd probably just dig being around all the operating rooms and cool instruments. That's probably not reason enough to become a doctor."

Baxendale plans to move the museum into its own space eventually--he likes the idea of creating a venue that will always house his art. He hopes to get a storefront. Or better, an old hospital building. But even then, he says, his apartment would probably still have something of the medical aesthetic. "In this modern age of violence and pollution and with all of the stress going on all around us, I really feel that it's important for someone's home to be outfitted in a way which is very serene and conducive to healing," he says. "I think that even somebody who isn't a typical convalescent can benefit from residing in a space that has all the attributes of a typical convalescent space."

The last stop on the tour is what Baxendale calls the "very popular Amazing Body Pavilion." Fastened to a wall is a detailed 19th-century anatomical mannequin made of paper--essentially a life-size pop-up book that unfolds into seemingly endless layers to reveal the intricacies of the human anatomy. Though its form is male, it includes female reproductive parts and a fetus in various stages of development.

The room also houses a less detailed female mannequin, a relatively contemporary torso with removable parts, and an exhibit of wax anatomical molds. "In the 1700s in Florence, Italy, wax anatomical making became all the rage," he says, "because wax could be used in very thin layers and tinted with natural pigments to make very lifelike representations of human organs."

He points to a wax heart he made, then to a box sitting next to it. "You can press the red button there for the more risque wax anatomical model for adults only."

I press the button, and a light comes on. Female genitalia.

"That actually is not a wax anatomical model," Baxendale says. "It's from a sex catalog." He grins. "Whatever. Heh heh."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia, Derrick Beasley.

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