Touch (noun) to Touch (verb)- meandering sticks

Long bones of the upper limb

Cory, the lab technician has placed a box of bones on a table in the anatomy museum for me to scrutinize. Bones of the upper limb this time. One tattered and bulging carton full to overflowing with scapulae and hand bones strung on fishing line and bundles of the long bones of the arm- each set comprises a humerus, radius, ulna and collarbone held together with a rubber band.

I decide to lay out the wing-like scapulae in a large ordered group on the grey table near the window because I want to look at them together and from a distance. In doing so I know this attempt at pattern will reveal sweet differences.


There are subtle, poignant shifts from one to the other in size, weight, texture, form, density and colour. Some have patches of bone that are impossibly thin and others are surprisingly sturdy and thickened especially at their edges.

One in particular takes my eye. It is quite small and fragile and covered in a fine, spidery lead-pencil taxonomy of words- the names of muscles and various bony delineations.1.

Scapula detail

The grain of the bone lends the handwriting a sense of fragility and uncertainty. The scribbles are on both sides and I flick from one side to the other, reading the bone in a search for meaning. Every bump, every recess has a reason for being. Every process has a purpose.

Ulnae,radii and collarbones

I gather up the strange bundles of long bones and line them up on the table to see them in the natural light of the window. Four sets in a row. Together they create an illusion…a chaotic jumble of meandering sticks with clumsy abrupt endings. They could have been hand-made in low-fired white clay or cast in creamy Plaster of Paris. There’s a whole arm in each bundle and the bones look almost like pale root vegetables wrenched from the earth or even well worn wooden puzzles jumbled and grubby from being handled by countless students. I’m surprised at their childlike chunkiness. The curious bundles seem more like playthings than serious anatomy. But these are extraordinary toys.

They are ambiguous. Just by looking I find it impossible to embody the notion of an arm. I peel off the rubber band and the bones fall, clunk, strewn on the table and I can now see them apart from each other for the first time. I feel compelled to hold each one, one at a time. I grasp, cup, caress, and scrutinise each and every texture, process and depression by touch, tracing each detail with my eyes up close, turning each over in complex directions from end to end, round and round and up and down. I can feel the twist of the ulna and the radius, the robustness of the humerus, the ball of the shoulder and the curious shape of the elbow.

bones of the hand

In order to understand what a student may gain from touch I feel I need to do this kind of unbounded exploration for myself. I’ve observed so many practical anatomy classes now and watched countless students interact with these objects that I know in an analysis of my exploration I can’t claim the same imperative to pick these bones up so as to get the names right and embed knowledge. But this experience has been so rich- to sit alone and consider these objects in my own time, simply driven by curiosity and with little or no intention in my exploration but to be open to whatever feels familiar and unfamiliar. To consider, investigate and scrutinize- to bring my touch (noun) into touch (verb).

Obviously context is important in defining the role that touch plays in anatomical education. The learning environment is unique and the formal examination criteria provide the imperative to learn specifics.

We are only beginning to understand the significance of touch when it comes to leaning human anatomy. We have observed that the experience of touch can provide a student with subtle and complex readings of the subject matter. Various qualities of touch can be learnt, particularly in terms of intention and purpose. Ian’s approach and attitude to the subject is amplified in the way he ‘handles’ the various forms of representation in the practical anatomy classroom. He is assured, purposeful and respectful and the students take his lead. But our observations have also revealed that every individual brings unique qualities to touch and that this contributes to their unique approaches to learning. Why does this matter? What differentiates and defines the qualities of touch? This Synapse project is affording Ian and I some critical time to ask these more nuanced questions and explore them in quite personal and creative ways.

The musculoskeletal course began this week and I feel privileged to be able to observe a new group of second year medical students negotiate this immense subject. It is the third year in a row that I have been involved with students undertaking this particular course. Ian has again introduced me to the large group of about 140 students and in the first lecture he has stressed the critical importance of hands on experience in the anatomy lab. This year he emphasizes: In order to get to grips with this material, you have to get your hands on it.

I’m keen to now focus our research more intensely on the role that touch plays in learning the human musculoskeletal system with this fresh group of eager students. We are currently waiting for ethics clearance specifically so that I may document the students’ hands during the practical classes.

The Anatomy Museum July 4TH & 5TH 2011

[1] This scapula is part of a set donated to the university. The marks were made by someone else but they have been left as is. The senior lab technician says the marks and names on the bones are sometimes made by the students and in a way he doesn’t mind too much because it’s a part of their learning.


About Catherine Truman

Biographical Statement 2011 Catherine Truman is co-founder and current partner of Gray Street Workshop in Adelaide, South Australia. Established in 1985, it is one of Australia's longest running artists' co-operatives. She has traveled and exhibited widely nationally and internationally and is represented in a number of major national and international collections including the Pinakothek Moderne Munich, Museum of Auckland, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Powerhouse Museum Sydney, Art Gallery of South Australia and Artbank In 2007 she was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship and selected as a Master of Australian Craft 2008-2010. Truman qualified as a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method in 1999 and uses the body as a starting point in her work. Her work has always been informed by a strong political consciousness. Current interests lie in the ways in which human anatomy has been translated through artistic process and scientific method – specifically how the experience of living inside a body has been given meaning and the role of new technologies in the translation, expression and expansion of our individual and shared experiences of the human body. She has researched historical and contemporary anatomical collections world-wide and has participated in a number of art/science- based projects such as Reskin an ANAT Wearable technology Lab, Australian National University, With the Body in Mind (a multidisciplinary art/sciences forum presented through Arts in Health, Flinders Medical Centre and Not Absolute an exhibition of collaborative works by artists and medical researchers and scientists held at Flinders University Art Museum, 2009. In 2008 Truman was invited to participate in Thinking Through the Body (ARTLAB) –an interdisciplinary research project exploring the use and potential of touch, movement and proprioception in body-focused interactive art practices co-coordinated by Dr George Khut and Dr Lizzie Muller. The first public presentation of this research was held in Performance Space, Sydney, 2009. Thinking Through the Body continues to operate as a research ensemble. Since 2009 Truman has been artist in residence in the Autonomic Neurotransmission Laboratory, Anatomy and Histology, Flinders University, Adelaide. In 2010 Truman and neuroscientist, Professor Ian Gibbins were awarded a Teaching and Learning Innovation grant (Flinders University) to carry our their research project entitled: Translating the Body: the choreography of representation in anatomy teaching. Truman has just been awarded a ANAT Synapse residency to further her collaboration with Gibbins. Their research is focused on the exploration of the role of two and three dimensional forms of representation in the communication of functional human anatomy to students of medical science.
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