A view over the backs of a seated crowd showing a saxophone quartet performing in a dim hall lit in red, green, and blue and flanked with classical statues of human figures
Saxophone quartet ~Nois performs in the Hall of Immortals at the International Museum of Surgical Science in December 2022. Credit: Courtesy the IMSS

The International Museum of Surgical Science (1524 N. DuSable Lake Shore Drive) bills itself as “North America’s Only Museum Devoted to Surgery,” but that’s only part of the picture. It’s housed in a Gilded Age lakefront mansion based on a chateau once occupied by Marie Antoinette and built in 1917 for socialite Eleanor Robinson Countiss, cofounder of the American Furniture Mart. This historic building would be worth visiting even if its ballrooms and corridors weren’t filled with inspiring, thought-provoking, and macabre exhibits—among them lavish medical-themed oil-painted murals, ornate centuries-old eyewear, a giant collection of gallstones, and gynecological instruments as antiquated as Samuel Alito’s ideas about reproductive health.

The International Museum of Surgical Science maintains permanent collections and presents special exhibits and medical-themed art shows. But it’s also become one of Chicago’s premier venues for offbeat music and cultural programming, hosting concerts, book readings, lectures, crafts workshops, dramatic presentations, and other events inspired by medicine, healing, or a related part of the human experience. Page through the IMSS calendar, and you’ll believe there are as many ways to approach those subjects as there are cells in a human body (that is, approximately 37.2 trillion). In 2022, the museum’s bookings included a synesthesia-inspired art show, a film series curated by Visual AIDS that explored the HIV epidemic, and The Priestess of Morphine: A Forensic Study of Marie-Magdalene, an operatic performance about a German Jewish lesbian poet and author whose work centered lust and opiates and who died in a Nazi-run sanitarium. The IMSS also hosts relatively straightforward concerts, though the artists themselves are rarely straightforward: sound-collage duo Paradise Complete and experimental musician Jordan Reyes both played record-release shows last year, for instance, and UK avant-garde label Touch presented an event at the museum as part of its intercontinental 40th-anniversary celebration. Whatever draws you to the IMSS, you can leave knowing there’s nowhere else on earth quite like it.

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