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]

MedHum Monday: The Rose Melnick Medical Museum, Taking the “Show on the Road”

DailyDose_PosterHappy MedHum Monday, Everyone! Now that you’ve returned to the weekday grind (after at least one cup of coffee, likely) it’s time to hear from someone who uses an incredible amount of creativity and hard work to share the collections of a medical history museum without a physical gallery space. Cassie Nespor, curator of the Rose Melnick Medical Museum, partners with neighboring academic buildings, schools, and local museums to bring the history of medicine to her community. In addition to these efforts, the museum has a digital presence, allowing an even broader audience to appreciate and learn about all of the amazing artifacts. Welcome, Cassie!


The Rose Melnick Medical Museum at Youngstown State University opened in 2000. The core collection of artifacts comes from John Melnick, a local radiologist, who wanted to start a museum to help foster an appreciation for the history of medicine in the community. The museum consists of about 10,000 artifacts and a small collection of historical medical books. The museum also has a blog and YouTube channel.

In the beginning of 2013, it was decided that the museum should be relocated to the Health and Human Services academic building on the campus core. The move meant that I would be without a physical space to display exhibits and host events for possibly several years. The situation forced me to rethink my programming. I decided that I’d need to take “the show on the road” to other buildings on campus and into the community.

Hallway exhibit cases featuring an exhibit on medicinal alcohol
Hallway exhibit cases featuring an exhibit on medicinal alcohol

The Health and Human Services building was remodeled to include several hallway exhibit spaces for the museum throughout the building. These are small exhibits that I can change easily and in the future I plan to use them to feature student work from the collection. The current exhibits are fun and visually appealing to students waiting for class to begin or catching the eye of someone visiting the building. I have also reserved a number of banner exhibits from the National Library of Medicine. These banners get displayed near the café in the building and cover a variety of topics I bring in related speakers for public events or individual classes. For the “Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine” exhibit, I partnered with the local historical society for a public event featuring Betsy Estilow from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. For the “Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Gilman Perkins and the Yellow Wall-paper,” I spoke to a graduate class in English about the “rest cure” and mental health care at the turn of the century. With these banner exhibits, I am trying to engage our college students in a variety of medical history topics that will hopefully drive them to our website and blog for more information and create an interest for using the collection on campus in the future.

Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries banner exhibit
Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries banner exhibit

The other component to “taking the show on the road” was developing a suitcase tour. I shadowed the local historical society on some of their mobile tours to local elementary schools. Since many of our tours were local schools as well, I developed a tour with curriculum standards in mind. The tour features durable artifacts (like pill molds) and some replica instruments I purchased from online Civil War sutlers (monaural stethoscopes, leech boxes, and an ether canister). The suitcase also carries 8 mortar and pestle sets that I use for a hands-on activity in making medicine (an 1881 tapeworm remedy using pumpkin seeds and sugar). My artifacts and PowerPoint presentation have been well received by the kids and I’ve given almost 20 suitcase presentations in the past year.

Suitcase Tour Items
Suitcase Tour Items

I am also a part of a Cultural Collaborative group of local museums. I let them know that I was looking for ways to get out in the community and they’ve responded with a number of invitations to join in their programs. This summer I am participating in several summer camps hosted by the park and the historical society, using my suitcase tour. I’ve had a table of historical instruments at the children’s science museum when they were making their own stethoscopes and microscopes. I did a fun presentation on quack medicine for the historical society’s brown bag/ lunch-and-learn program. The park also invited me to be part of their Family Garden Day with an Alice in Wonderland theme. For that, I created a new color-changing “digestive elixir” (out of cabbage juice). I’ll get to use this fun drink again with the science museum hosts a STEM festival in September.

Pumpkin Walk at the Mill Creek Metro Parks. The kids were using the mortars and pestles to make the tapeworm remedy using pumpkin seeds.
Pumpkin Walk at the Mill Creek Metro Parks. The kids used mortars and pestles to make the tapeworm remedy with pumpkin seeds.

These new partnerships will hopefully expand my reach in our community and create new audiences whenever the physical museum finally opens again!

The Daily Dose Presents: The National Library of Medicine

DailyDose2Welcome back to the Daily Dose!

A few weeks ago, we featured the National Library of Medicine on the Dose.  The NLM itself is the world’s largest biomedical library with a collection of over twelve million books, journals, manuscripts, audiovisuals, and other forms of medical

During the past three decades, the NLM has come to have global influence through developing electronic information services, and the new blog of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division, Circulating Now, complements the broader history of the Library in important ways.

Today, I have asked Elizabeth Mullen, Manager of Web Development and Social Media in the History of Medicine Division, to share with us about the making of Circulating Now. What does it take to put a blog like this together? How might it change or evolve int he future? Thank you, Beth, for sharing your thoughts today on the journey from inception to completion!

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2c93335Elizabeth Mullen

I joined the National Library of Medicine in 2001 as an exhibit specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division.  My background in anthropology and museum studies was a good match for the work I did for the next few years, developing museum style exhibitions for display at the Library and online.  As time went on and budgets shrank, I became more interested in using the web to ensure that our exhibition messages reached the greatest number of people, whether that meant presenting and enhancing the content of our exhibitions online, using the web to more effectively communicate about our resources, or using social media to effectively communicate with new and existing customers.

Earlier this year I took a new position in the Division as the Manager of Web Development and Social Media. The National Library of Medicine has amazing and unmatched resources in the history of medicine and because we are a national library these resources are a public asset, and they should therefore be available and accessible to everyone. NLM’s digitized collections now offer people much greater access, even casual browsers of our website can have access that previously would have been available only to those able to come to our physical reading room. Still, most people will not be aware that they have this access or that it might be useful or interesting to them.

One of the ways we’ve chosen to address this challenge is by developing Circulating Now, a new blog written for the general public and focused on our collections and public resources.  NLM is not a circulating library—and as we developed the project there was some concern internally that the title might give the wrong impression about what we do—but the idea took hold because as more of our collection materials are digitized, and more of our data is made portable, and as we continue to develop new online resources that interpret and scaffold our collections for librarians, teachers, students and the public, our material is circulating, virtually, and at an amazing rate. And we want to keep that going.

Nobody knows a collection like its custodians and we’re very lucky to have knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and articulate staff members who are passionate about the collections they care for and the work they do.  Circulating Now creates a bridge between the staff and the public that is more flexible, rapid, and efficient than producing, organizing, and maintaining individual thematic websites.  This ease of use allows for a much greater variety of collection materials to be exposed to search engines and shared with the public.  The nature of the blog platform also creates a community of interested individuals, reaches out to the public regularly, and extends the reach of the Library’s work in a way that traditional web projects, and uninterpreted digital collections on their own do not. Circulating Now allows us to share timely, unique, and detailed information about individual collection items and activities, and this allows us both to expand our audience and to dedicate more resources to improving our main website and developing more complex and targeted online projects.

As with any new thing, we had discussions and disagreements about the details of software, design, and style concerns.  Some of our decisions were constrained by government policies and available resources but where we had flexibility we moved in directions that supported the project’s goals.  One of our goals is to showcase the vast variety of materials that we have and so we wanted a design that was very visual and which could convey the breadth of the collections. We also wanted a design that would make an impression and break a little away from the traditional government website.

Building this blog has been a really exciting challenge.  From the beginning, we’ve had a clear vision about the purpose and audience for the blog, that the writing should be approachable for everyone and the material should evoke the living quality of the NLM’s historical collections and the stories they offer about the experience of health and disease across ten centuries and around the world.  We’re always working toward the goal of engaging the public and finding new ways to connect with the people who can use and be inspired by our collections, including scholars, educators, and students who may know our collections well and those who may not, many discover them for the first time, and be gratified that they did so, for the benefit of research, teaching, and learning.  One nice thing about Circulating Now is that it’s malleable, constantly changing, so while we’re still evaluating our tagging system, settling into our workflows, and coming to grips with our metrics, we can learn quickly from our experiences and be constantly improving to reach the wide audience that deserves to learn about the NLM’s historical collections and related resources.

Thank you, Beth! We look forward to seeing the future of NLM’s digital collections!