Art and Observation: Stanford 25 Trip to the Cantor Art Museum on Stanford Campus

May 21, 2014

Recently, the Stanford Medicine 25 team met with Drs. Yeuen Kim, Lars Osterberg and colleagues for a presentation on “Rodin and Physical Examination Skills: Formal Art Education to Improve Visual Observation” at the Stanford University Cantor Museum.

In her presentation, Dr. Kim introduced us to the field of medical humanities, and described the many outcomes of using these approaches to educate the medical community. They include:

• increased tolerance for ambiguity
• sophistication in description of patients
• increased awareness of emotional expression in faces
• observational and pattern recognition skills as well
• awareness of other perspectives
• creativity
• identification of a story and a narrative

Dr. Kim and docents from the museum then led the group through visual thinking strategies as well as formal art critique skills for an attempt to practice these strategies. She also briefly discussed Inside Rodin’s Hands, an exhibit at the Cantor that includes a sculpture of a hand with a volar ganglion and uses 3D scanning to illustrate the anatomy of the volar ganglion within the sculpture. This exhibit was made possible with the work of plastic hand surgeon, James Chang. The exhibition itself is impressive and aptly bridges medical science and art.

During the tour, docents facilitated discussion of portraits and statues. A particularly memorable discussion included the study of one Rodin bronze statue, which left the team intrigued at Rodin’s ability to sculpt a mouth with differing expression from two perspectives. Would we have noticed this interesting feature of the sculpture’s face if it were not for our brief introduction on how to use art to hone our observation skills?

Near the conclusion of the tour, we recognized it was easier to piece together emotion from expressive contemporary art than the realistic portrait of a solemn face. Recalling visual thinking strategies, “What do you notice about this face?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” “What more do you see?” we found that observing a face in a painting and examining a face at the bedside have many parallels. As our trip to the Cantor showed, using visual thinking strategies to explore art can be a useful and creative method to improve our observational skills at the bedside, and beyond.

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