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Pulling teeth is an art at the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry

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BY ANU ARUMUGAM
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 26, 2010

The University hosts one of the few museums in the world specifically dedicated to honoring the discipline of — believe it or not — dentistry.

The Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry is scattered throughout the School of Dentistry and the W.K. Kellogg Institute Building. Named after Dr. Gordon Sindecuse, a University alum, the museum was created in 1992 to preserve dental paraphernalia and recognize the fusion of art and dentistry. The museum contains over 12,000 objects, but only 15 percent of these artifacts are put on display due to lack of space. Most of the items are kept in drawers, portfolios and rolling racks under carefully monitored temperatures to battle decay.

Amber Ostaszewski, an LSA sophomore on staff at the museum, described Sindecuse as a “dental cabinet of curiosity.”

“At the lobby, we have a representation of a mid-20th-century dental office and a progression of early x-ray equipment,” Ostaszewski wrote in an e-mail interview. “Upstairs are two cabinets that deal with the groundbreaking scientific research by one of our very own alumi, Dr. Willoughby D. Miller, a pioneer of dentistry in the early 1900's.

“In the Atrium, one can find archaic dental units, featuring ivory-handled dental instruments and Victorian, velvet-upholstered dental chairs, complete with chandelier lights,” she continued.

“The remaining part of the museum is located down a hallway, and features cases of vintage dental products, as well as dentures, articulators and other miscellaneous items.”

Essentially, the Sindecuse Museum is a place for students at the University to learn about the history of dentistry, particularly the events that took place here at Michigan. The Sindecuse Museum is also home to diverse expressions of dental art.

Visitors can see parts of a beautiful, multi-hued mural portraying the “Legend of Paul Bunyan,” created by painter Francis E. Danovich. Extraordinarily imaginative sculptures, including a face made purely out of orthodontic instruments and created by dentist and sculptor Dr. Eugene Buatti, are also on display.

According to Curator and Museum Director Shannon O’Dell, the museum, though officially 18 years old, had been in utero for several decades.

“The collection actually was started even before Dr. Sindecuse gave the funds to begin a museum,” she wrote in an email interview. “For several decades before the start of the museum in 1992, there were dental faculty, like Dr. Charles Kelsey and Professor Al Richards and our dental librarian, Sue Segar, who took responsibility for preserving and storing historical equipment or photos and documents that speak to the history of the profession and to the school itself.

“So, in essence, the museum began because of an appreciation and admiration for the history of dentistry."

Regardless of whether one is interested in dentistry, Sindecuse contains intriguing pieces that reveal an artistic side to the field, as evident by the experience of Emma Wolman, the museum’s Web content editor.

“I didn't really know anything about the dental profession when I started working here last fall,” Wolman wrote in an e-mail interview.

“It turns out there's a long and interesting history worth considering. The way dental practices have evolved with technological and scientific advances is pretty interesting.”

“I never thought about what it might be like to get a cavity filled before modern anesthetics were introduced, or in the days before electricity,” she wrote. “Now I've thought about it. I bet it was unpleasant.”

No matter how much the medieval-looking torture devices make you squirm or how boring dental history may seem, a visit to this little-known showcase is truly a jaw-dropping experience.