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Shocking Waves at the Museum: The Bini–Cerletti Electro-shock Apparatus

Medical History
Cambridge University Press
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medhis5503-23 407..412 Medical History, 2011, 55: 407–412 Shocking Waves at the Museum: The Bini–Cerletti Electro-shock Apparatus ALESSANDRO ARUTA* Keywords: Electroshock Apparatus; Electroconvulsive Therapy; Exhi- bition; Scientific Museology; Lucio Bini; Ugo Cerletti The historian of science, Lorraine Daston, has written about things that talk.1 But how much can an artefact in a museum communicate its history to the public? Artefacts in museums speak, but it is not necessarily, or even at all, in the language of their original time and place. Cultural baggage, memories, and imagination all come into play, includ- ing those held by museum curators, and not least those contained within the operational and historical frameworks of such institutions.2 At the Museo di Storia della Medicina della Sapienza at the University of Rome we are organising an exhibition around an arte- fact that more than any other elicits emotive reactions – the Bini–Cerletti apparatus for the administration of electro-shock.3 This prototype of the first ECT machine, along with various historical documents, manuals, and textbooks relating to it, is a valued part of the Museo’s collection. We are proud of it, yet as a display item, it is also some- thing of golden chalice. Leaving aside the ethical question of whether we can (or should) convey to visitors the anxiety and pain of the patients who once submitted to the device, and leaving aside the different loads of historical and contemporary baggage that visitors will bring to it, how can such an object be represented in an historically honest way? This is the problem, for while we might be true to the context of its emergence, within � Alessandro Aruta, 2011. *Alessandro Aruta, Museo di Storia della Medicina, Sapienza Universita` di Roma, Viale dell’Universita`, 34/A – 00185, Rome, Italy. Email: alessandro. [email protected] 1 Lorraine Daston, Things that Talk: Object Lesson from Art and Science (New York: Zone Books/MIT Press, 200

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