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UCLA Library collections include a vast variety of items that are not paper-based or AV-based. And sometimes, Library staff come across quite intriguing objects within the Library collections that are utilized to help inform them on technique, manufacture, practice, or history of not only paper-based materials, but whole studies. Occasionally, these items even tell their own stories.

Follow Nicole Avarado and Russell Johnson as they detail the history and conservation of a rare Chinese medical doll.

Before treatment

Click through to see the doll before preservation.

About the doll

Made in Hong Kong and accessioned in 1995 into UCLA Library’s historical biomedical collections(opens in a new tab) — which includes books, journals, manuscripts, prints, portraits and medical artifacts — this doll “known as a diagnostic doll or ‘Doctor's lady’ is a type of small sculpture of a female figure historically used in China and parts of Asia as a diagnostic tool” (Chinese Medical Doll(opens in a new tab))

Michael D. Mauer (1942-2022) loaned this doll and a dozen others from the collection of his parents, Edgar F. and Alison K. Mauer. Both parents had health care backgrounds — Edgar was a Los Angeles cardiologist and Alison had a masters in public health administration from UCLA — and were avid collectors of history of medicine and rare books. The present doll remained at UCLA Library and was intended to complement the library’s rare and historical collections in Chinese medicine.

Shortly after being donated to the Library, this medical doll was exhibited at the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library’s Rare Book Room to Las Doñas (The Givers)(opens in a new tab), an alumnae service organization that supports UCLA programs, with a presentation by now retired librarian Katharine Donahue.

“If a woman could not come and see her physician, then a messenger would bring a doll to the doctor so that the diagnosis could be made [...] Although it appears that considerable care was given to crafting the dolls, they were not made for display, since it was traditional in China not to portray women unclothed,” Donahue said in a 1995 interview with the Daily Bruin about the exhibit(opens in a new tab).

However, the common interpretation of these dolls may be entirely wrong, according to a 2022 blog essay(opens in a new tab) by Yuewei Wang, a museum studies student at the Royal College of Physicians, London. Wang states “The true function of these dolls may lie in the time of their production. During the Ming and Qing dynasty, China began to manufacture ivory carvings for western consumers with factories set up in Zhangzhou, and later in Canton [Guangzhou]. These ivory dolls, with their erotic poses and their bound feet, could be products designed exclusively for European customers to meet their expectations of an exotic representation of the east. This would explain why they mainly exist outside of China, and the medical stories behind them might just be a way to justify their existence among a doctor’s collection.”

Preserving the doll

Click through to see the preservation process.

After the 1995 exhibit, the Doctor’s doll and wooden base remained attached with museum wax that was used to prevent the doll from falling off of the base during the length of its display. Additional wax was present on the feet of the base indicating that it was also used to secure the pair to the display deck. This attachment posed a problem with its housing, which could not properly contain the two parts attached. Russell Johnson, UCLA Library Special Collections curator of history of medicine and the sciences, and I agreed that the best route would be to separate the pair so that the two parts could be properly housed and stored at Library Special Collections — Biomed.

The two parts of this piece were separated mechanically using a bamboo lifter to ensure that little to no abrasion would occur when separating. After removing the bulk wax, the remaining museum wax residue that could not be picked up mechanically was removed using solvents and then cleaned with damp water swabs. A label was also found stuck in the museum wax, which had a number 9 written on it, possibly from the previous owner or from the exhibition. This label also left a residue that was removed using solvents. Unfortunately, the museum wax left discoloration embedded into the ivory of the doll.

During examination of the attached figurine and base, the headrest popped off of the base. This was reattached using Paraloid B-72, which replicated the translucent appearance of the lacquer used to coat the base.

Once the doll and base were successfully separated and cleaned, the original housing was retrofitted to support the figurine resting in the front slot with the base seated in the pillow.

After treatment

See how the doll has been rehoused.

Associated content

Associated Staff Member