MedHum Mondays: NYAM on Public Outreach

DailyDose_PosterWelcome back to the Daily Dose and Medhum Mondays! This summer, we have contacted museums and libraries to ask about outreach–how do we share the intersections between medicine and history, between science and story? Today, I am pleased to host Dr. Lisa O’Sullivan from the Center for History of Medicine and Public Health (CHM) at  the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM), founded in 1847. You can learn more about their mission and collections from their last appearance on the Daily Dose. Welcome Lisa!


foyer snakeNYAM and its library have always been interested in public outreach, whether through the long-running “Lectures to the Laity” that were delivered for several decades during the mid-20th century, many of which were also recorded by WNYC (keep an eye out for newly digitized selections of these, soon to come) or our annual season of free public lectures in the history of medicine.

We are lucky to have world-class collections built over time, many generations of readers who know and love them (ask any New York M.D. of a certain age for stories of our reading room), and a very devoted core audience. Our new identity means we now have the opportunity to expand that audience by building our profile as a New York cultural institution.

NYAM Festival Of Medical History & The Arts
Festival of Medical History and  the Arts

With a mission to preserve and promote the heritage of medicine and public health, we are committed to building diverse audiences who interact with our collections in a multitude of ways. We do this while connecting to the broader mission of NYAM’s urban health concerns, which center on health promotion and disease prevention, health disparities, and healthy aging.

Our publications, digitization, and exhibitions programs are still in the early stages of development, so our current outreach focuses on public programming and social media. Last year, we created a new tradition of an annual Festival of Medical History and the Arts. Our festivals present a full day of different perspectives on topics relating to health and medicine that relate to our collections and mission to engage professionals and the general public alike. Our second-annual Festival on October 18, 2014 will be Art, Anatomy and the Body: Vesalius 500.NYAM_Vesalius 500

We use the diversity of our collections to engage people who might not feel an immediate connection to the history of medicine. As well as more focused historical pieces, our blog, Facebook and Twitter presence features medicinal plants in bloom inspired by neighboring Central Park, medical poetry (whether humorous, poignant, or downright doggerel), cooking from historical recipes, and more speculative intellectual approaches to our collections. We plan conferences such as the LaGuardia Report at 70 that link a historically significant moment (NYAM produced The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York for Mayor LaGuardia in 1944) with contemporary concerns. Finally, we make connections with individual artists, writers, and performers, and with our neighboring institutions.

NYAM_Hill_Decade of Curious Insects_1773
Decade of Curious Insects 1773

Crucially, we also spend a lot of time thinking not just about how we reach general audiences, but why this is important to us. The creators of medical libraries and museums had specific (primarily research and pedagogical) purposes in mind when they began to build their collections. For 19th- century institutions like ours, the audience imagined for the collections was generally limited to members of the medical profession, or those studying to become one.

Our collection is extremely rare in having been open to the public since 1878 (although of course like most libraries we had our—now defunct— “restricted” categories; in our case class marks S102A – Sexual instinct {not available to public} and S102B – Sexual instinct {locked, but available}). So, while committed to public engagement we remain aware that a medical collection is a specialist one that requires careful interpretation to make it accessible in ways that don’t detach our (sometimes sensitive) materials from the context that makes them meaningful.

When we reach out to these broader constituents, we aim to do so on a level that goes beyond a Facebook “like” (not that we don’t like those too…); that is, we are hoping not just to entertain people but to engage with them by offering ideas, information, and the historical and contemporary concerns behind the image or text we present. The sense that social media is a necessity, because “everyone else is doing it too” has a level of truth to it. However, we try and produce social media content that is always relevant to our mission and connected to our other programming. We want to make historical knowledge accessible, to engage people with the humanities and the arts as they relate to health and medicine, and to encourage them to ask more questions and dig deeper. Keeping the question of why we are reaching out to general audiences in our minds helps guide the approaches we choose.




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