Medical Humanities: Building a Community

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Visitors in the Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments, one of the most comprehensive in the country

How do we build community? What makes it possible?

The Medical Humanities, operating at the intersection of fields, aims to bring diverse perspectives together. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the mad tumult and breakneck pace at which we presently live, it’s increasingly difficult to be heard–though we are less like voices crying in a wilderness and more like people shouting at a hurricane. Carving out space for truly meaningful engagement is tricky business, and today I am going to liken it to a similar issue faced by museums and libraries.

For the past year, the Dittrick Medical History Center has hosted a medical humanities reading group. Housed in the Allen Memorial Medical Library, we provide a beautiful building and a practical space–but also much more. Our historical collections are diverse

Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.  Woodcut circa 1530 - 1545
Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.
Woodcut circa 1530 – 1545

and fascinating (500 year old ivory anatomy models, Beck’s defibrillator, Vesalius’s Fabric of the Human Body), but any curator will tell you, objects simply do not speak for themselves. Museums, libraries, and other cultural spaces must do more; we must build a relationship between history and humanities–we need supportive communities.

And those communities need us, too. One thing that has become increasingly clear to me since leaving the usual tenure track appointment for academics in favor of museum work is that a real hunger exists for alternatives and intersections. The usual routes–be they for degrees, careers, interest, investment, and engagement–don’t always satisfy. Hybridity and interdisciplinarity garner a lot of press, but how can we put such things truly into practice? One way is to form alliances between the medical humanities and medical museums like the Dittrick. We believe in the value of such communities, and want to make them an integral part of all we do. Here’s a look at how we’ve made those inroads.

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Kate Manning, signing books in the contraception gallery after her talk

To build–and so to provide–a robust inter-disciplinary community, the Dittrick Museum has focused on membership, exhibit engagement, social media presence, and event planning. That means welcoming those beyond the walls to join us in new ways. This past September, we hosted a book talk by Kate Manning (author of My Notorious Life), packing the Zverina roomfor a talk about women’s issues, women’s health, contraception, history, and fiction. Kate signed books, gave a reading, and talked about the value of museum collections for her work. A link to the talk appears here; as Kate said, “here at the museum, I am surrounded by the things I once only imagined.” We’re also hosting a “mystery at the museum” night, as well as our other annual lectures, talks, and receptions.

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Members at one of the Explorations talks, this one on the changing doctor-patient relationship brought about by the stethoscope

Of course, to bring in a public is only part of the process; we want those who visit to feel part of what we do. We want and need vibrant and engaged people to help us bring the humanities and medicine to the wider public. As a result, we’ve also begun to offer things like the Explorations talks for our members, interesting and behind the scenes chats about the museum or about history and the humanities more generally. We are also hosting a trolley tour of the Lakeview Cemetery the day after Halloween; many medical luminaries are buried there and it provides an interesting way to get the “dirt” on local history. These events are free to our members (see how to join), a fee for non members, but the point is this: Provide a narrative, the story of our shared medical past. Provide a space and also a reason to see the relationships among culture, society, health, gender, and more. To engage with the human side of medicine has always been one of the goals of medical humanities; to engage with the human at the interstices of culture, history, medicine and the humanities is also the goal of many a medical and scientific museum.

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Members of the Medical Humanities Reading Group at Case Western Reserve University

And so, with our continued programs and projects–and a robust online platform (twitter, instagram, web, and blog), the Dittrick museum has sought to be a center for outreach and engagement. It has been our pleasure to host the medical humanities reading group and we welcome other like-minded affiliations. Join us. Be part of our community. Let’s make history.

[Images by Frank Lanza]

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