The sarcophagus before me dominates the exhibition. Intricately carved animals, including a line of fierce lions, arise from the slab of marble. Peering more attentively, I even notice the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, wielding her characteristic shield and helmet. A horse pulls a chariot, and perhaps that is Hector there on the ground, the Prince of Troy now fallen.
We are sitting in the Ancient Greek and Roman Gallery at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, quietly observing the tomb in front of us. Over the next hour, the nine of us — one physician, one medical student, a museum director and six students — sit in front of this work of art and discuss our interpretations, compare and contrast our theories and even physically transcribe our thoughts onto a piece of paper
I’m no art history concentrator, nor was I gifted with an exceptional talent at drawing and illustration. Thus, when I signed up for this elective class, “From Galleries to Wards,” I was a bit skeptical. Society has primed us to be either one or the other, scientifically inclined or artistically inclined — not both. How would art and science go together?
Our guide encourages us to jot down as many initial observations of the piece as we can. Then, we sit. For quite a while. The more time passes by, I realize that I hadn’t notice the tiny dog in the corner, or the fact that the sculptor painstakingly etched every hair of that lion mane in the marble. The more I spend time with the piece of work, the more I discover its stories. “Did you notice the three little cupids?” asks the museum director. I shake my head and am surprised to, yes, find three little cupids on the coffin that I hadn’t noticed before. We take turns fielding questions. The director adds that the decorations were specifically chosen to symbolize the personal values of the person for whom the sarcophagus was made. I find myself enjoying learning more about this work of art and realizing that we gained knowledge about it because we did ask, because we did spend time with it, because we opened our eyes to its features.
So too it is with science, and particularly with medicine. The study of art, culture and history involves contextual interpretation and detailed analysis. Scientists employ similar methods. Physicians do as well when evaluating patients’ stories. If we are to spur on a generation of intellectually enriched and empathetic doctors, medical education needs more of these humanistic and artistic explorations. Healing is complex. It is a challenging art. But as a premedical student, I’ve learned that art itself can teach us much about science and medicine. Patience. Attention to detail. Openness to interpretation. Listening to others’ stories and asking.
And so, let us spend some time in a museum and explore. Each discipline can learn from each other. Science and art — medicine and the humanities. The more we intricately weave parts of these pursuits with one another, the fuller our comprehension and the better our understanding of the world will be.
Editor’s note: The author is a student in The Program in Liberal Medical Education, an eight-year continuous medical program at Brown University.