As a schoolboy in suburban Sydney during the 1960s, one of the highlights of the year was a school excursion, either to somewhere like the Port Kembla steel works or the Museum Of Applied Arts & Sciences in Harris Street, Ultimo. The latter was always a much anticipated experience if only for one particular exhibit – the anatomical marvel of the amazing transparent woman.
The prospect of viewing a totally naked woman, albeit one made of plastic with the internal skeleton and organs revealed, brought many a guffaw from the bus loads of school boys as they trekked into the city. These days it would hardly raise a post pubescent eyebrow but in the 1960s it was tantamount to an act of voyeurism. One however that had its share of youthful disappointment with the transparent model exhibiting no visible signs of genitalia.
The Transparent Woman, who remains a prized exhibit at the current Powerhouse Museum, has a fascinating history which dates right back to the 1930s in Germany and the Museum of Hygiene in Dresden. Based on the supposed ‘perfect forms’ of men and women, they were promoted as both teaching aids and as examples of healthy living for the public at large. There was even the suggestion that they reinforced the concept of the master race during Nazi Germany.
When in 1954 the Museum Of Applied Arts & Sciences acquired their own transparent woman, the model’s arrival was not without a degree of controversy, with one rather prudish customs official attempting to block the import.
As the Powerhouse Museum’s current website recalls:
“To cover some of the huge cost involved in obtaining the model, she was put on displayed in the State Theatre and the public were charged 2 shillings per adult and 9 pence per child to see her. The viewing sessions were segregated by gender and a trained nurse was on standby to assist if anyone was overcome by the experience. To add to the sensationalism she was marketed using images depicting a dark and shadowy ‘sex siren’ type of woman.”
After this initial sideshow like exposure the model was moved to the Museum, to promote health and hygiene and later as a part of sex education programs, despite the absence of some essential body parts. Surprisingly I can find no public record of the Museum assigning the woman an identity in the form of an actual name, although I am sure she is referred to by some kind of nickname within the inner circle of curators and techs that keep her ticking. Could we have a public competition to finally christen her – perhaps with a mythological name like Venus, Electra or Aphrodite?
As an afterthought there is definitely a scenario here for an Australian sci-fi movie – a kind of Night At the Museum meets the The Amazing Colossal Woman. The Powerhouse Museum is finally about to be moved to Parramatta but the transparent woman will have none of it. The night before the move begins she miraculously springs to life, escaping into the Sydney CBD to fight crime and corruption. A Spiderman like cult figure amongst the adoring populous, she eventually stands for Parliament and is elected Premier of the State.
She reveals everything, past and present, regarding the possibility of moving the Powerhouse to Parra, including the enormous cost of transporting the collection. Public opinion gets right behind her and the honesty of her disclosure convinces all and sundry that the Museum should not be moved. You can beat ‘transparency’!