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Museum to Give Human Biology the Same Punch as Dinosaurs and Rockets

June 27, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Touch a real brain - yes, real, not a model. Measure the skeleton of a fetus. Perform surgery with the same computer simulator medical students use.

It’s all part of the newest museum planned for the capital’s Mall - the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a place where human biology will get the same punch that the Smithsonian gives to dinosaurs and rockets.

″We are a museum about the human body on a human scale,″ said museum officer Libby Videnieks. ″We don’t say, ‘Here’s a picture of a smoker’s lung.’ It’s there, the smoker’s lung next to the non-smoker’s lung, the healthy brain next to the Alzheimer’s brain.

″It’s not a morbid thing; it’s a learning tool.″

The National Museum of Health and Medicine already exists, but most of its unique artifacts are hidden in a cramped Army building in north Washington, out of sight and out of mind of the 25 million tourists who come here each year.

That’s about to change.

The museum plans to move onto the Mall by 1999, where it will teach visitors to take charge of their health and translate medical advances into their everyday lives.

″We haven’t had a great national museum doing the kinds of work in health that great museums like the Smithsonian do in earth sciences,″ said museum director Dr. Marc Micozzi.

Americans want to learn about medicine and they want it to be fun, said Bonnie VanDorn of the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

″Think how the general public is attracted by something unusual or gory or strange,″ she said. ″They have some of those things. How they choose to use them in order to further their health education goals will be interesting to see.″

That’s already beginning at the museum’s present home at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A masterful exhibit walks visitors through the human body, from the cardiovascular system to hormones. Touch the inside of bone. See an enlarged heart - not in a jar of formaldehyde but sitting open, preserved because cell fluids were replaced with silicone.

Marcus Cohn, 10, made a beeline for ADAM, the advanced computer cadaver that teaches medical students anatomy and surgical techniques - and allows visitors to do simulated surgery just like docs.

″Cool,″ Marcus pronounced.

Across the hall, a frank exhibit discusses AIDS.

Visitors spot live leeches and learn that the bloodsuckers of old are now prized in delicate surgery.

They see the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln and play a computer game that asks how to treat the stricken president. Do you ease his pain with brandy? Not unless you want to drown him.

The museum has a unique interest in such history because it was founded in 1862 not to create exhibits but as the first federal medical research facility.

Under the Army’s direction, museum doctors fought battlefield disease during the Civil War, a legacy illustrated by the thousands of soldiers’ skeletons still housed for study. They were the doctors called when Lincoln was shot and, over the years, the pathologists called upon as forensic detectives - a craft so honed that curator Paul Sledzik now teaches the FBI how to pick clues from long-buried bodies.

The museum, part of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, once sat next to the Smithsonian on the Mall, drawing almost one million visitors a year. But when the Johnson administration decided to build a modern art museum in 1968, the medical museum was evicted. Attendance plummeted to as few as 25,000.

Now, Congress is considering giving the museum prime real estate across from the Smithsonian’s hugely popular National Air and Space Museum.

Passage of the legislation is expected soon and required site studies have begun. But the museum isn’t waiting for a budget-pressed Congress to find construction money - former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop is helping it raise private funds.

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