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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The CDC contains an 'Outbreak' of cultural curiosities

click to enlarge DEATH BECOMES THEM: A skeletal death works in the world of pathogenic microbes in “Memento Mori” (translation: “Remember that you are mortal”).
  • DEATH BECOMES THEM: A skeletal death works in the world of pathogenic microbes in “Memento Mori” (translation: “Remember that you are mortal”).

Did the bubonic plague extinguish Europe’s feudal caste system and trigger the rise of the middle-class bourgeoisie? Did yellow fever end the trafficking of African slaves to the New World? Did the Spanish flu halt World War I? According to Outbreak: Plagues that Changed History currently on view at the CDC’s Global Health Odyssey Museum, the answers are maybe, maybe and maybe. And although it’s assuredly an oversimplification to attribute some of history’s biggest events to any single cause, Outbreak puts forth the intriguing notion that many of the defining currents of human social and cultural history around the globe have at least been influenced by some of the planet’s smallest inhabitants.

Outbreak is the artistic brainchild of painter and illustrator Bryn Barnard. Barnard’s 2005 book of the same name targets middle school children with lush gouache and oil paintings that bring to life key moments in world history. It shows how a slew of unimaginably destructive epidemiological disasters gave us the world we live in now. The current CDC exhibit comprises Barnard’s original paintings along with maps and text borrowed from the book. It’s the first collected public showing of the work, and as is typical for CDC exhibitions, Outbreak aims to make explicit connections between broad health issues and daily life.

Curator Louise Shaw glides though the exhibit, stopping here and there to point out a few noteworthy works. She pauses before a small painting of cholera victims being unloaded at the port of Jaffa in Tel-Aviv. Until 1912, cholera was one of the major hazards facing those who made the Muslim pilgrimage known as Hajj. “This is my favorite painting in the show,” says Shaw. “It’s sort of like a Gérôme.”

“Or Delacroix,” I add.

“Yeah, all those 19th-century French painters!”

Our obscure art historical references point out the tightrope Shaw and her CDC colleagues must constantly walk in their programming for the museum. A show designed for middle schoolers must also appeal to adults, tourists, CDC staff and government bureaucrats alike. Global Health Odyssey is a federally funded educational institution, not an art center, and even a casual visit requires an automobile search and a trip through a metal detector. But once visitors undergo the “CDC experience,” as staffers call the rigorous security protocol, the facility offers a slice of culture unavailable anywhere else in the city. Examining health by way of art, design and other cultural artifacts is where the CDC excels.

Shaw turns and we head away from the port of Jaffa and toward feudal Europe. The cholera illustration may be her favorite painting in the show, but her favorite disease is the so-called Black Death, which killed nearly 24 million Europeans between 1346 and 1351. (It’s not unusual for CDC staff members to have “favorite” diseases.)

Barnard has illustrated this ignominious moment in history with a painting of a doctor comforting a distraught young woman while a male relative lies dying in the background. The painting is loaded with historical and cultural details: the crucifix on the wall, the bowl used for bloodletting, the smattering of dead mice on the floor.

Perhaps most striking is the doctor’s period costume, which consists of a long robe, white gloves, a flat, wide-brimmed hat, and a mask with glass lenses and a long beak-like protrusion. The beaked mask survives to this day in Carnivale and Mardi Gras celebrations, illustrating Barnard’s point: that the culture wrought in times of great disease and pestilence flows like a tributary into the sweeping river of history and lets out into the present in often surprising ways. In the Black Death’s case, feudal Europe was a festering stinkhole full of illiterates walking streets clogged with garbage and human waste. Meanwhile, universities flourished in the Middle East and the Aztecs traversed well-maintained roads complete with public pay toilets at regular intervals.

All that changed, however, when a third of Europe’s population succumbed to the bubonic plague over just five years. With a smaller labor force, wages increased, prices decreased, wealth was accumulated and, voila!, a middle class was born. At least that’s the short version of the story. Social history is far too complex to assert that the Yersinia pestis bacterium single-handedly created the middle class. But as an agent of history, its influence is undeniable.

Judy Gantt is the museum’s director. Her favorite disease is the Spanish Flu. That pandemic's currently thought to be the deadliest in human history, racking up a hefty body count between 60 and 100 million worldwide. Gantt points to Outbreak’s power to help visitors consider what impact present-day diseases may be having on our culture now and in the future.

“AIDS certainly is having an effect,” says Gantt, who also cites chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes as potential game changers. Both Shaw and Gantt talk about how “smart” the AIDS virus is, how it has learned to survive everything humans have thrown at it, and how it is certainly changing society in Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Of course we won’t know the full impact of AIDS and other current epidemics on world culture for generations. Artists of perhaps the 22nd and 23rd centuries will have to take that up. But as the CDC’s scientists work toward the prevention of these diseases, we can hope for a day when red ribbons follow the same course as the plague doctors’ masks — the signs of inevitable death transformed by history into a symbol to all revelers that there’s reason to let the good times roll.

Outbreak: Plagues that Changed History. Through Jan. 30. Free. Mon.-Wed. and Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Global Health Odyssey Museum, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road. 404-639-0830. www.cdc.gov/gcc/exhibit.

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(Photos courtesy Bryn Barnard)

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