Dental history goes digital: university launches virtual museum of dentistry

Dental School Dedication 1
University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry has just launched their new website, the Virtual Dental Museum. Viewers can digitally explore the museum and its five exhibits. The exhibits are also on display to the school community on digital kiosks located on the first and fourth floors of the school. The digital exhibits are part of the ongoing Virtual Museum Project, which began in 2012 as a creative way to present the school's A.W. Ward Museum collection. For the past two years, Dr. Dorothy Dechant, curator of the A.W. Ward Museum, has been working closely with school photographer Jon Draper to carefully photograph artifacts of all shapes and sizes—from tiny dental burs to heavy antique dental chairs. Viewers can browse through five exhibits:

Dechant says that the idea for the virtual museum took shape in conversations with former dean, Patrick J. Ferrillo, Jr., in 2012, when they were first discussing how the museum would transition to its space in the new school building, which opened last summer in downtown San Francisco. A virtual presentation was the creative solution that would allow broader access to the museum and digitally showcase artifacts that have been in storage due to space limitations. Some of the artifacts have now been gifted to other dental museums or sold at auction.

A team of colleagues in the school's Design and Photo, Marketing and Communications, and Information Technology departments worked with Dechant in recent months to put finishing touches on the new web site and kiosk exhibits.

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The exhibits

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Image from "Painless Promises"

"Please Have A Seat: Evolution of the Dental Chair" charts the dental chair over a 300-year span. Prior to the 17th century, tooth extractions were performed with patients sitting on the floor, their heads wedged between the dentist's knees. Dentists then took matters into their own hands, constructing their own dental chairs until the mid-1800s, when commercial manufacturers took over. The chair has come a long way since then, and today's design maximizes patient comfort while providing the dentist with adjustability that allows optimal access to the oral cavity.

"A Dynamic Decade: Speeding Up the Handpiece" includes a fun bit of history: bur speeds increased dramatically in the 1950s when the idea of using turbines in airplane design inspired a new patent for the air turbine handpiece, accelerating the average handpiece from 6,500 rpm to 250,000 rpm. Pacific's very own Arthur A. Dugoni (then serving as assistant clinical professor of operative dentistry at the College of Physicians & Surgeons, which later became Pacific Dugoni) was one of the first to share his confidence in the new high-speed handpiece.

The "Still Lives in Dentistry" and "Business Cards of the Victorian Dentist" exhibits showcase beautiful images of ornate objects from the 1800s and 1900s. Many of the shots of the smaller artifacts were taken using a new photo tent set up, which enabled Draper to control the lighting of the objects, minimizing shadows and isolating the subject from the background.

There is a wealth of information stored in the A.W. Ward Museum, and Dechant has special insight into the school's place in the histories of dentistry and San Francisco. One of the exhibits, "There & Back Again: Our San Francisco Story" charts the school's circular path through the city; the most recent move to the current Fifth Street location has returned the school to nearly the same spot as its original location in 1896.

What's next for the Virtual Dental Museum
Dechant says that she would like to work on an exhibit comparing items used in the dental school's early years with modern instruments used by Pacific Dugoni students today. She thinks viewers would be particularly interested in seeing the materials and methods students once used and learned, like the gold foil technique and casting taught at the dental school up until 1980.

The A.W. Ward Museum of Dentistry was founded in 1974 in honor of one of the school's early graduates and a pioneer of surgical periodontics, Abraham Wesley Ward, P&S class of 1902. Since its inception, the collection has grown from in-kind donations, primarily from alumni. Most of the artifacts date from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. Donated items are catalogued, with description and donor information maintained in an EmbARK database.

The school's Institute of Dental History and Craniofacial Study maintains four collections, the Ward Museum being one, to support the preservation and study of dental history, craniofacial biology and evolution. More information about the collections is available on the school's website.

Students, researchers, and dental professionals interested in studying the collections may contact Dr. Dorothy Dechant, museum curator, at 415.929.6627 or ddechant@pacific.edu.

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