Ivory-handled bone saws, early X-ray machines and tools used in the ancient skull-boring practice of trepanning fill the glass cases of its galleries.
Now, the International Museum of Surgical Science on the Gold Coast is turning its attention to something more modern and, thanks in part to Caitlyn Jenner, more mainstream: sex reassignment surgery.
Collin Pressler, director of exhibitions, said the museum hopes to “demystify” the “relatively obscure” subject. An estimated 700,000 people in the United States identify as transgender, according to a June 2016 University of California study. Between 100 and 500 sex change procedures are performed each year in America, according to the online Encyclopedia of Surgery.
“As a staff, as a museum, we observed that this topic has sort of percolated into the mainstream in terms of the way it was treated by the news media — seen as a flashpoint, socially, culturally and politically and so . . . we thought we’d be able to contribute to that dialogue in medical and surgical terms,” Pressler said.
The museum is in the early planning stages, but Pressler said he hopes the exhibit would be open to the public by the end of 2017.
Pressler said he doesn’t know of another museum in the United States that has presented a similar exhibit.
The museum’s galleries are filled with surgical tools, detailed descriptions and vivid artist renderings of all kinds of surgery. One life-size painting features a woman undergoing a Caesarean section in Colombia in 1844. The woman, in apparent pain, can be seen tightly clutching her bed sheets.
Pressler doesn’t like to use the term “graphic” when describing how the museum presents its subject matter, but he says the planned exhibit wouldn’t seek to censor the material.
“The museum doesn’t shy away from real and accurate depictions of surgery; that’s how you educate,” he said.
The museum unveiled its tentative plans last month, so there have been no firm commitments yet from either donors or content experts.
“I’m working with a few academic bodies, but nothing’s confirmed,” Pressler said.
Pressler said he also expects to reach out to the local transgender community to solicit ideas.
Kim Fountain, chief operating officer for Center on Halsted, which bills itself as the largest LGBTQ center in the Midwest, said she’s hopeful about the museum’s plans.
“You’re going to get as diverse a response as there are diverse people in the trans community — and that’s not a cop-out,” Fountain said. “For some people, it will be shocking. For others, celebratory. For others, it will be a way for them to show people in their lives something that either they’ve been through or want to go through without it having to be very much about their own bodies.”