Blanton Museum educator Stephanie Piefer Niemeyer, writes about an unusual partnership she’s cultivated that exposes medical students to the arts in a way that enhances their education in both fields.
“Take a minute just to look. I am not going to tell you the name of the artist, or the title, or what year this was painted. Just Look.”
Long pause. Some mumbling.
“Okay, what was the first thing you noticed when you looked at this painting?”
“It looks like her breasts are in a plate.”
“Yes, yes, they are …”
This is how most of my conversations begin with people in the galleries. I do not always start with something as startling as the seventeenth-century painting of the martyred St. Agatha by Lorenzo Lippi, but with UT Medical Branch (UTMB) students, this painting gets us off to a good start.
Traditionally, St. Agatha is revered as the patron of nurses, and in recent years, breast cancer survivors have venerated her due to her life and subsequent torture at the hands of her fiancé. For her feast day in Sicily, little cakes are baked in her honor, oftentimes in the shape of breasts. The medical students and I will start with the first comment, “what are her breasts doing in a plate?” We follow that up with a look at her face: what does her expression say to you? We then look at her body: how would you describe her posture? Afterwards, we move out farther and consider the whole scene: what is the mood of this painting? Rousing discussion ensues…
Wait a second. What are UTMB students doing in the art museum? Shouldn’t they be dissecting something? Well, they are—they are dissecting art.
Around the country medical school residents, nursing students, physical therapists, New York City policemen—yes, cops—are going to the art museum to sharpen their observation skills. The Blanton and UTMB’s Internal Medicine division at Seton Hospital have been working together to bring small groups of third-year medical students to look, consider, think, speculate, construe, and conclude what could be going on in some of our most beloved works of art.
More recently, in addition to looking upstairs in our rich permanent collection of paintings and sculptures, we’ve added a stop in the Wilkinson Print Study Center. The Ware Collection of Medical Prints provides a number of historical and contemporary prints related to the study of medicine that supports the students’ understanding of the history of their future profession but also hones their examination skills by looking closely at the intricacies of prints. The idea is that by becoming thoughtful, careful observers, these future doctors will become more comfortable observing a patient’s unspoken visual cues that may alert them to a diagnosis or a secondary condition. Perfecting their study of visual cues, whether by diagnosing a painting or a person, will make them more attentive to their patients.
For me, this was re-visiting a program that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston started in the early 2000s under the leadership of Beth Schneider. I was fortunate to work with the Carrie Robinson-Cannon as she developed MFA, Houston’s program based on the Frick’s “Art of Observation” collaboration with Yale University Medical School. So, when two enthusiastic chief residents, Doctors Holli Sadler and Murad Aslam, approached the Blanton with a similar idea, I was thrilled to get started. Together the three of us designed this pilot that is approaching its one-year anniversary.
“Much of what we do in medicine is searching for the correct diagnoses, sometimes overlooking how other aspects of the patient’s life affects their medical issues,” said Dr. Sadler. “The time spent in the galleries reminds the medical students to appreciate the entirety of the patient, not just their diagnoses—which in the end, allows them to provide better patient-centered care.”
Yes! Throw in a bit of respite in a beautiful place with amazing art, and we have prescription to guarantee success.