Marilyn Russell challenges Pitt medical students to see in a new way. PHOTO: LISA KYLE
In a new class for University of Pittsburgh medical students, educators at Carnegie Museum of Art and The Andy Warhol Museum teach the fine art of becoming more observant.
Health is in the eye of the beholder. At least that’s the vision of a new course developed by Carnegie Museum of Art, The Andy Warhol Museum, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
This past summer, a small group of soon-to-be second-year medical students signed up to be the guinea pigs for a class called Art and Medicine. The concept behind this four-session mini-elective was straightforward enough: Take students out of their predictable classroom environs, invite them to explore the less familiar surroundings of the two museums’ galleries, and watch what happens.
According to Marilyn Russell, curator of education at Carnegie Museum of Art, this seemingly simple change in routine could prompt significant shifts in behavior. “The arts can help people see things from different points of view,” she explains. “A myriad of conscious and unconscious factors affect what we see, what details and nuances we observe, and the conclusions we draw from visual information.”
In other words, if these future doctors could learn to look at a chart and combine their first-rate analysis of clinical data with perceptive and empathetic observation of say, body language, it could make all the difference not only in their careers but also in the treatment of their patients.
Taught by educators, curators, and conservators at the museums, the Art and Medicine sessions guide students through a series of discussions and hands-on exercises.
“We capped the number of participants at eight, and the course was filled immediately,” says John Mahoney, M.D., assistant dean for medical education at Pitt’s School of Medicine. “The trend in medical education is to help students appreciate the need to be a whole person and not just a bookworm.
“Our long-term goal is lofty,” Mahoney continues. “We hope this will lead to more thoughtful and observant physicians.”
Although similar partnerships between Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Medical School and The Frick Collection and the Weill Cornell Medical School served as inspiration, the Pitt-Carnegie connection has been years in the making.
The synergy between the two perennial Pittsburgh institutions can be traced back to the museum’s life drawing classes for medical students offered as early as 2001. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2006 that an official relationship involving medical school coursework took shape, when Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the School of Medicine introduced The Natural History of Medicine, an elective course taught by four Museum of Natural History paleontologists and anthropologists. In the course, students are asked to consider what researchers know about the evolution of the human body, the evolution of medicine, and how this knowledge can and should factor into the treatment of patients today.
“These kinds of meaningful collaborations between our museums and the School of Medicine are wonderful examples of how cultural organizations can and should look beyond their own four walls for creative ways to make a difference,” says David Hillenbrand, president of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
Seeing Is Understanding
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in June, and four women and two men, all Pitt medical students, are gathered at The Andy Warhol Museum, all but one of them for the first time. Arms crossed, they were ready to see what’s in store.
With Jessica Gogan, the museum’s curator of special projects, leading the discussion, the doctors-to-be spent the next 45 minutes describing what elements color their work environments; what the two classic symbols of art and science—white medical coats and white museum walls—have in common; and how Andy Warhol played with our expectations and ideas by delving into different mediums.
The students then moved through the museum donning 3-D glasses to view the Ladies and Gentlemen series of paintings; got horizontal on the floor of the Silver Clouds installation; and reflected on Warhol’s Camouflage painting from formalist, expressionist, and historical perspectives.
As the museum art educators expected, it didn’t take long for these fish out of water to start clicking with their new surroundings, making real-world connections with what they were seeing.
“No single factor, on its own, is capable of giving genesis to a piece of art,” says Akshar Abbott, a Pitt medical student. “This leads me to the idea that examining a patient yields factors of varying importance. One can imagine being more immediately interested in the pulse rate of a heart attack patient than, say, their undying love for Frank Stallone's early work. But each observation is a necessary component of our understanding of the patient's overall health.
“What do calloused hands tell me about the physical stressors on this patient? What does their willingness to make eye contact or their willingness to talk about their family tell me about the emotional challenges they face? What of that which I observe makes their health issues better or worse?”
During two similar afternoons at the Museum of Art, students focused on deciphering the content and interpretation of works of art based solely on careful observation, and by applying a systematic taxonomy that has similarities with the scientific method of inquiry. They became “art doctors” during a behind-the-scenes session in the museum’s conservation lab, learning to combine observation with technical data to arrive at judgments about two paintings by Edward Hopper. Then it was back to The Warhol where the students were immersed in the decision-making involved in artistic practice as they worked collaboratively on a silk screen a la Andy.
What do the medical students think about their entree into art? “We’ll be asking the students for their feedback,” Mahoney says, “and in the spirit of art, we’ll be open to changes.”
In reality, however, the final grade may be decades in the making, as these physicians of tomorrow apply the skills they’ve honed through the simple act of observing, thinking about, and discussing art.