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Inside the Burns Archive, a walk on the wild side of history

Guest - Thursday February 25, 2016 10:14
Dr. Stanley Burns in the Burns Archive

Dr. Stanley Burns in the Burns Archive

Discover the darker side of history – and some incredible early photographs – in this small New York collection

By Jennie McCahey

Just when you thought you knew New York city’s museums and galleries, suddenly you come across a cool and quirky collection that is a complete surprise and knocks your socks off!

When researching places to visit for the Spring 2016 programs season, a member suggested I look into the Burns Archive ( Three seconds on the internet and I was hooked! The Burns Archive is a collection of more than one million historic photographs, including one of the world’s most important repositories of early medical history. As their website states, the works provide photographic evidence of “forgotten, unseen and disquieting aspects of history.”

A photograph of a Geisha, part of the Burns Archives

A photograph of a Geisha, part of the Burns Archives

The collection was amassed by Stanley B. Burns, MD, a practicing ophthalmologist and Clinical Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at NYU, who started collecting medical photography after he came across a mid-19th century daguerreotype of a man in Caracas with an enormous misidentified tumor on his jaw. Since then, he has written over 40 books and collected photographs of African American History, Judaica, Egyptology, criminology, Japan—anything that as he said “provides a truth of history.” Dr. Burns and his daughter and collaborator Elizabeth A. Burns, were the Medical, Historical and Technical Advisors to the HBO/Cinemax historical hospital drama “The Knick,” directed by Steven Soderbergh. They were also medial advisors to “Mercy Street,” the Civil War medical drama produced by Ridley Scott.

I knew of his book Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, a study of 19th-century memorial photography (a once widespread genre popular as an aid memoire of loved ones) but I hadn’t made the connection from the book to the collection—located right near the Royal Oak Foundation office! Yes, some of the photos are disturbing and macabre, but the collection also features educational and thought-provoking images, such as the celebration of the freeing of French slaves in Martinique. Other images show the normal everyday minutiae of people’s lives from a time past.

weeping women

I am so excited as while the collection is normally only accessible to researchers and scholars, Dr. Burns and Elizabeth have agreed to open the collection to a small group of Royal Oak members this Spring. We’re always worried that one day we’ll run out of places to visit, but then I stumble upon a collection like The Burns Archive and know that there are unexpected, hidden gems throughout New York just waiting for us.

Royal Oak’s Burns Archive Tour will take place on Friday, April 8, from 5:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

For more information about this tour and the other great programs this season, visit:

This tour is available to supporting-level members only. To join or upgrade your membership, join today! Join Now