Models like this one are called 'obstetric phantoms' in medical instrument catalogues and they are used to teach medical and nursing students the mechanisms of labour. Unlike rigid plaster or plastic anatomical models, phantoms have some of the tactility, flexibility and resistance of a real human body.
Because the model of the 'mother' is cut away on the belly side, the teacher can manipulate the model of the 'foetus' so that it emerges and rotates the way a real baby would as it is being born. The teacher is also able to demonstrate births that are not normal, such as when the baby presents with its feet or shoulder first, instead of its head. This means that the student doctor or midwife can practice delivering babies in normal conditions, and in circumstances where obstetric forceps are needed. Obstetricians themselves sometimes use a phantom to rehearse manoeuvres before presiding at a difficult delivery.
Some demonstration obstetric models consist of real female pelvic bones mounted on a stand with the real skull of a foetus. Some mid-20th century 'phantoms' resemble nothing so much as a vitreous china basin with a rubber 'vulva' for the baby (with its wooden head and chamois body) to pass through. But the leather 'phantom' owned by the Powerhouse Museum is a particularly interesting example, its detail including a red leather interior with the mother's backbone in relief, stitching around the vulva that appears to represent labia, and facial and cranial features on the foetus. It is in good condition but the tip of the baby's nose is very worn, apparently as a result of repeated 'births'. The model was purchased at auction in London in 2001 and is estimated to date from the late 1800s.
Members of the Health and Medicine Museums Special Interest Group of Museums Australia assisted curator, Megan Hicks, by providing information about obstetric phantoms and their usage. Special thanks are due to Dr Stephen Steigrad, Mrs Judith Cornell AM, and Mrs Helen Croll-Wilson.
Catalogue of surgical instruments and appliances manufactured by Arnold & Sons, London, 1895.
A reference list of surgical instruments and medical appliances, Allen & Hanburys Ltd, London, 1930.
Illustrated catalogue: Surgical instruments and appliances, Elliots and Australian Drug Limited, Sydney, 1934.