The 18th European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences biennial Congress occurred in Groningen (the Netherlands), September 28th – September 30th 2016, jointly hosted between the University museum, University of Groningen and the University Medical Centre Groningen. This report will describe the benefits of this congress and how it aids us in our work at the museum by broadening our perspectives.
The theme for the 2016 Congress is ‘Out of the Showcase’. It focused on the use of medical history objects and collections beyond the polished realm of museum galleries and displays. Participants spoke about new and creative ways of teaching and performing research within our material medical cultures, and the roles, functions and contributions of specific actors: students, medical experts and laypeople. In addition, presenters addressed possibilities and approaches to connecting the topics inscribed in medical artifacts with society and everyday life.
One of the most significant aspects of the presented talks concerned really broadening museum audiences and bridging the gaps between collections and the public. Though many of the museums that participated were university museums, and some not open to the public at large, participants really addressed the “why this, why here, why now” of collections. How do we make ourselves relevant to our communities? To donors? To the university? To those who would most benefit from using the collection? And to demonstrate just how vital collections can be, Jaqueline Healy of Melbourne talked about how the anatomy collection really aided in the birth of the Melbourne Medical School. She also described how vital close relationships between and among museums, collections, libraries and hospitals can be to preserving endangered medical heritage.
Another theme addressed how collections can better serve their communities. The Wellcome Library recently renovated their reading room to an interactive space encouraging discussion and collaboration and even “touch” (manuscripts were re-created and reproduced so that visitors could interact with them). We don’t think of library spaces in this way, often, but we must realize that, first, publics and students alike engage with research in different ways in the digital age. And second, rather than resist changes, much can be gained by creating spaces that make these new ways possible. The Wellcome has also been doing programming much like the Dittrick’s Conversations, to similarly successful effect. We have been working hard along similar lines to combine digital, actual, interactive, and discussion—it was very valuable to see this in action at other institutions. The University Museum of Utrecht’s use of the “dialogue zone” is another approach but for audiences between ages of 8-14 to engage with contemporary and historical science issues. This could be something to revisit in our own programming.
Finally, a theme that arose in the second day of presentations dealt with “patient voices.” The Museu d’Historia de la Medicina in Barcelona offered a riveting exhibit featuring the history of polio along with photographs of polio sufferers, nude. The images of bodies affected by polio and then the narratives of those patients (all of whom gave consent and participated in the exhibit) both shocked the audience and also drove home the humanity behind suffering of post-polio syndrome. A great discussion followed where the audience asked about potential consequences of putting disability on “display” and how they managed it, which led to more discussions about how we view and interpret the patient behind the disorder. In another patient-centered exhibit, veterans were asked to curate their own Science Museum exhibit about PTSD alongside history exhibits of shock at Battle of the Somme. The results were incredibly impacting on the audiences of the exhibit, but also on the veterans who suffer from PTSD in a modern context. It generated conversations, and this encouragement of patient narrative is something that may be worth exploring further in our own exhibits, planning, and programming.
Last, the keynote address by Ann-Sophie Lehmann offered a unique look at “object lessons,” the history of teaching through objects and how we, as collection managers, curators, and engagement professionals, can teach with our collections as “object lessons” too, art coming to life in science and medicine. Specifically, she showed object lesson boxes once used to teach children, a specific kind of pedagogy about how we “make meaning” by answering questions like “how does it feel? What is it like? What can it be used for?” But her talk also described the kind of meaning-making we all take part in all the time; when we interact with a physical object, we have an immediate sense of it that no amount of description can supply. Even more importantly, when that object is coupled with a lesson (and especially when we take part if creating that “lesson”) it comes alive for us in new ways. As a history of medicine museum, we seek to emulate the object lesson, not by providing mere static images and text, but by offering objects and artifacts, by hosting conversations about them, and by creating interactive ways for our guests to “make meaning”—and in so doing, bring our medical history to life. In all of the presentations, we were offered a unique glimpse of how other museums—some larger, some smaller, but all faced with similar obstacles and challenges—overcome barriers to reach audiences for the greater good. We left feeling inspired and excited about new prospects. In addition, we made contacts with other professionals that will hopefully lead to new collaborations in the future.
See the Storify on twitter, here: https://storify.com/bschillace/eamhms-2016-congress#publicize
Photograph Courtesy, of University Museum, University of Groningen