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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Communicating Medicine: Objects and Objectives

Audience at the meeting

Conference Report

by Dr Emm Barnes

Several privileged sites in UK and Europe -- sites that include the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, and the Wellcome Collection in London -- are now producing medical exhibitions of considerable quality and communicative power. Scholars in Manchester and Copenhagen have long wanted to hold a workshop to consider the quality, reach, and potential for these, and on Friday 7 March 2008, 40 people gathered in CHSTM to start this process.

Historians of medicine, museum curators and directors from across Europe and the US, and outreach workers from UK centres for medical history met to analyse recent displays and consider how they might be even better and interest wider audiences, and to question what and how we should collect for the future. The Wellcome Trust generously sponsored the workshop, as did the Medical Museion in Copenhagen. We hope that this event will be the first of a series, as there is lots to discuss and much to gain from bringing together this mix of people.

There were many illuminating linkages between the individual presentations, and the discussion spilled out of the seminar room into the coffee and lunch breaks: we very much hope that this will be continued by email, weblog, and face to face. We were left with a set of questions for future work. Take a look at the weblog of the Medical Museion for some of these, starting with the post about the meeting, "Acquisitions are the lifeblood of museums", to add your thoughts on how to collect medical objects.

In CHSTM, we’ve been thinking about the connections (or lack of) between exhibitions, teaching, and research, and about access, audiences, and evaluation. To contribute to the CHSTM site, please email Dr Emm Barnes: additional responses to the day may be incorporated in this website, and in future writings about the meeting and the core issues.

Connecting scholars, curators, and educators

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Katie Maggs' (left) presentation, chaired by Thomas Söderqvist

We were treated to presentations on no fewer than five recent exhibition development projects: Camilla Mordhorst gave us a tour of "Oldetopia" at the Medical Museion, Mieneke te Hennepe introduced us to "My Skin" at the Boerhaave, Kate Forde led us on a journey through "Sleeping and Dreaming" at the Wellcome Collection, Katie Maggs shared the frustrations of updating "Health Matters" at the Science Museum, and Francis Neary helped us hear how the stories revealed by the machines in the engineering labs at Wrightington Hospital give a new (old?) meaning to the artificial hips that are seen as ready-made by hundred of  thousands of patients. Many of these projects have seen small groups of curators, or isolated individuals, responsible for developing a new exhibition, usually temporary and only to be shown in one or perhaps two cities.

It became apparent that the best displays often draw on historical scholarship, but in some sites the connections are much weaker and ad hoc than might be supposed. There is a tendency to rely on "artists" to do the integrative thinking, though it could be argued that much of the conceptual sci-art in museums is less "creatively conceptual" than the best of humanities scholarship. We are left wondering -- given the expense of these exhibitions, could we not establish informal networks to permit the best exhibitions to tour across numerous sites, thus sharing the cost and the success? And given the huge investment in medical history, the range of attractive scholarly work and the growing academic interest in outreach, could not museums host collaborative workshops at the start of projects, where curators, academics and other educators could explore how to deepen and broaden the proposed content, and how best to liaise with designers?

Access, audiences, and evaluation

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Kate Forde's presentation

All the presentations and the resulting discussions explored how objects' meaning(s) can be communicated to visitors, and through which interpretative strategies. We’ve been continuing to think about this in relation to the question of access and audiences – the ways in which we communicate medicine will (or should?) depend on with whom we believe we are communicating. There was a great deal of difference between the intended audiences of the exhibitions, and in the London Science Museum, the "Health Matters"’ gallery now receives large numbers of unexpected children, running in from the newly adjacent Launchpad interactive. That exhibitions can simultaneously stimulate interest in very different visitors is not under dispute, but how to do this to best effect could be usefully discussed for the case of medical exhibitions.

Perhaps it is indeed the case that medical exhibitions have universal appeal, because we are all interested in health perhaps -- but who is this "we"? This goes beyond marketing: it is a matter of clarity of intent, or of mission if that word is permissible. Simon Chaplin suggested that the Science Museum seems to be pressing a teleology in that "Health Matters" is designed to be evidently pro modern medicine, whilst the Wellcome Collection carries no such meta-message about the "goodness" of modern medicine in its galleries. This might be due in part to a difference in funding and economic strategy, but it is also a function of the different audience who use those two spaces, whether they are actively courted or not. Do "our" messages have to be different for different audiences, or can exhibitions be sufficiently multi-layered to please all of the people all of the time?

One of the closing questions of the workshop was, can we use current thinking and strategies within science communication and science education to bring the history of medicine to life? The answer surely has to be "yes" but this opens further questions, those always raised by science communication, namely whose agenda are we following, and what would "success" look like? It was clear from the presentations that there is no single answer, to either of these questions, and it is entirely probable that there should not be. But unless we collectively address these, and work out the answers each time we attempt to engage a public, we are not likely to be "effective" in any sense at reaching beyond our own small (and itself divergent) community. Science communication studies can help us to start answering these questions, and to evaluate our practice as well as our results.

Audience at the meetingThere is a related question here, namely: can science communicators learn from historians and the best medical museologists? Many of science museums with large audiences are increasingly focused on science education, to the exclusion of other missions -- rather as if the National Gallery was required to focus on the national curriculum and justify itself by enthusing potential artists. This exclusionary approach may make science seem naff compared to humanities and arts. There is a need for funding with different priorities, emphasing history and social contexts, and bringing to the science museums some of the displays and concerns which more privileged sites are now exploring.

Recent studies have shown that science -- and medical -- museums have the greatest potential to reach diverse audiences and stay relevant to those who live near them when the science is presented as part of the answer to a question of social and cultural concern, not as an end or of interest in itself. There may be a need for more extended workshops, summer schools or new training programmes, where critiques of past, present and potential displays could serve as a vehicle for developing a fuller appreciation of historical and social perspectives and how to include or spotlight these in exhibitions.

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