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Jul 17, 2015

What can art tell us about the history of healthcare?

Estimated reading time: 3-5 minutes

More than you may think! A new creative campaign is exploring the history of healthcare through art together with the Rijksmuseum.

Three masterpieces from the 17th century help reveal what healthcare would have been like for some of our ancestors – and highlight the scientific progress we’ve made to get to where we are today.

The Sick Woman”, painted by Dutch master Jan Steen has a lot to tell us about how doctors used to diagnose patients. An etching by Jan van der Bruggen “The Dentist”, gives us clues about 17th century style and oral hygiene. And a 400-year-old disruptive technology takes the spotlight in a piece on innovator Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.


Presenting these art pieces in the context of healthcare not only gives a glimpse into how people lived in the past but also puts the development of medicine and technology into perspective. For instance, who would have thought that dentists might have been also barbers, or that some doctors used to diagnose their patient’s illness by getting them to sniff fumes.

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The ‘why’ of wellbeing

From history and social development through to therapy, preservation and technological advances, the links between art and wellness go back thousands of years.


Art has always been a strong medium for expression and exploration, but it wasn’t until the mind-20th century that it began to be recognised for its therapeutic abilities. Since then it has become a viable channel for healing and rehabilitation, and is regularly used as a way to help people relax, deal with problems or express themselves.


Nathalie Lam, Global Sponsorship Director at Philips agrees. “Art can have positive effects on your wellbeing…when you immerse yourself in art, you feel happier and more enlightened.”


The Art of Health video campaign series is just one of many ways in what promises to be a number of special exhibitions created with the Rijksmuseum.


Speaking about future collaborations, Nathalie goes on to say “We were looking for different ways to express ourselves in the art domain and are developing a number of campaigns that connect areas of life, to health.”

Technology ties

It’s not just history that art and healthcare share – they also make use of incredible technology to further their fields, as Robert van Langh, Head of Conservation & Scientific Research at the Rijksmuseum explains.


“Like most things, art decays. This is how healthcare and art are connected, because time affects materials as well as humanity. As a result, we have been having similar problems and asking ourselves how we can go about improving things.”


Whilst scanning technology has come a long way in diagnosing patients, enabling wellbeing and extending lifespans, the similar benefits can be applied to works of art. Using these methods, professionals like Robert are able to look at items in much more detail to determine their origins and condition.


“What we both have are inspirational and talented scientists who are working towards similar goals. This opens up a dialogue between the art and healthcare worlds as there is a mutual interest, and a mutual benefit.”

A future, intertwined

By looking at the broader spectrums of history, technology, health and wellness, it’s clear to see that the worlds of art and healthcare share a great deal. The common goal of happiness, health and wellbeing is something that we all strive for. By combining the technological and ideological innovations of medicine and art, it seems that despite coming from different worlds, they are not so different after all.


See more about the art of health from the Philips creative campaign here.

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Innovation Matters delivers news, opinions and features about healthcare, and is focused on the professionals who work within the industry, as well as Philips as a cutting-edge health technology organization.

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