Last Brown Bag Seminar of 2011.

Brown Bag Seminar 7th December 2011

‘Past, Present and Future of Medical Museums'

Dr. Samuel J.M.M. Alberti

"Though reared upon the base of outward things, structures like these, the excited spirit mainly builds . . . all Promethean thoughts of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats all jumbled up together, to compose A Parliament of Monsters."

--From Wordsworth's The Prelude

Using the Hunterian Museum (London) as primary exemplar, Dr. Samuel J.M.M. Alberti spoke on the subject of the past, present and future of medical museums collections. Previously holding a joint post between the University of Manchester Centre for Museology and the Manchester Museum, Dr. Alberti is currently the Director of Museums and Archives The Royal College of Surgeons of England. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles, most notably including The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Nature and Culture: Objects, Disciplines and the Manchester Museum and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons Guidebook. It is difficult to think of anyone better qualified to guide a shared exploration of the subject of the historic role of medical collections in practical, social and aesthetic application.

Dr. Alberti began the seminar with a review of the general history of medical collections in Britain, most specifically the Hunterian collections. He then used that review as a basis for the discussion of current practice at the Hunterian, London. He finished his discussion with an exciting ‘preview’ of some of the exhibitions currently planned for next year before gently fielding questions.

Prior to the Apothecary Act of 1815 the development of medical collections was driven by curiosity and prestige. Thereafter, it was required by law that those professing themselves medical practitioners must have taken qualification in anatomy, botany, chemistry, materia medica, and ‘physic’. It was the beginning of medical licensure and created the necessity of access to medical museum collections for instructional purposes.

The Hunterian is an excellent example of the kinds of medical collections critical to the development of qualified medical practice in the nineteenth century. An initial discussion of ‘The Hunterian Museum’ is potentially confusing in that there are several. All of the ‘Hunterians’ are arguably the product of rivalry between the notorious Hunter brothers, William (the elder) and John (the younger) Hunter. Each of these men were avid collectors and each of them started more than one museum, using the family name. John Hunter placed his collections at two venues: London and Glasgow. There is also a ‘Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery’ at the University of Glasgow, a collection founded by William. Dr. Alberti’s ‘Hunterian’ collection was founded by John Hunter and is housed in London.

Although the Hunterian and its founder were the primary focus of discussion, during his introductory review Dr. Alberti also mentioned other historical ‘luminaries’ including: Frederick Knox (and his infamously unethical brother Robert), Richard Owen and Arthur Keith. He also briefly mentioned Gunther von Hagens’ plastination process and the popularity of the Body Worlds exhibitions. The Hunterian currently includes some of von Hagens’ work for teaching purposes. He concluded the review with an introduction of the ‘Post-medical’ museum (a museum that must meet the needs of both the general public and the medical profession).

A particularly compelling part of the seminar was the mention of Charles Byrne. The story of Charles Byrne ‘The Irish Giant’ presents one of the most powerful ethical studies available concerning use and abuse of authority in medical collections management. Alberti did not go into the story except to say that Byrne had not wished to be displayed postmortem and that Hunter had procured Byrne’s remains through methods unacceptable today. (John Hunter bribed those that had been paid by Byrne to see to it that his mortal remains were properly buried at sea, to instead deliver Byrne’s body to Hunter’s collection.)

Alberti’s historical review not only provided a helpful context for discussion but also a firm foundation for his thesis that the development of social consciousness in the use and display of medical collections was not simply a marked shift of the last twenty years but rather a contiguous, continuous, radical and habitually responsive, requisite function of curatorial praxis in medical collections.

Some of the titles for recent, current and future exhibitions and activities of the Hunterian in London include:

Abnormal: Towards a Scientific Model of Disability

Anatomy of an Athlete

Neurosurgery Training Resources

Stable Isotope Analysis of Leopard Seal Skulls (to learn about global climate change)

Endangered Specimens Endangered Skills

Digitized Diseases (3D laser scanning)

Primates of the Caribbean

More information on these projects is available from the Royal College of Surgeon’s website:

There is also some useful information in RCS Summer 2011 Newsletter

The question and answer portion of seminar circled the subject of the ethics of representation in medical collections. J. asked two questions (one toward the beginning of the session and a second toward the end). The first question asked at what point in time medical collections became accessible to the general public, the second whether or not the display of medical specimens depersonalizes and objectifies the subject of the display. Do medical museums behave responsibly and with sensitivity toward the subjects of their display? How do the general public perceptibly respond to these exhibits?

Many in attendance appeared surprised to learn that the Hunterian displays were not available to the general public (in the form they are today) until as recently as 2005. This is not to say that there has been no accessibility to medical collections developing previously, but legislation as well as social mores over the course of the past century have created an ebb and swell of popular accessibility. During the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, accessibility was primarily based upon status and vocation. In 1813 the Hunterian collection was available for exclusive viewing by college fellows and members on Tuesdays and Thursdays only: access, then, was hugely restricted. 'Fellows' was a term used by the Hunterian in its literal sense; women were not allowed viewing privileges until 1882. In 1882 the displays were open to view by accompanied women on Fridays and Saturdays. (As an aside, would this accompanied admission have been considered a ‘hot ticket’ by nineteenth century standards?)

Professor Sandell observed that this kind of continuous change throws into sharp relief the ethical issues involved in the needs of a museum to attract a visiting public while maintaining, in the case of the Hunterian, a specific remit to promote and define surgical standards. The underlying question asks whether or not it is valid to assume that the ability of the general public to view medical collections has changed how these collections are displayed. Moreover, what kind of interest the surgeons of today are taking in their museum? What are the surgeons gathering, experientially speaking, from the historical displays? In spite of hectic schedules, the surgical community have taken an active interest in the historical displays and museum events. Dr. Alberti hopes to appeal even more to the surgical community in future events.

In a related, reflexive response he further observed that as a museum professional he found himself in much the same position as many of his predecessors. How should he, as curator of a well-appointed and actively pedagogic medical collection navigate the needs of the visiting public against the needs of the community of surgeons upon whom the continuance of the museum depends? There are and have always been diverse and passionate opinions on what the appropriate function and expression a medical museum should be.

These meditations were prescient to a three-pronged divergence in the discussion. Elee Kirk pursued inquiry into the dignity of display and the administration of exhibition, Janet Marstine asked after practice of co-production in representation and a third direction of interest delved into review of the developing discipline of ‘medical humanities’.

In response to Dr. Marstine, Dr. Alberti referred to a conversation that he’d recently had with colleague Dr. Bernadette Lynch (with whom he wrote Legacies of Predjudice: History, Race and Co-Production in the Museum a reflective discussion of a failed co-production). Essentially Dr. Lynch had admonished Alberti to not lose his subjectivity. From listening to his views in seminar it seems Lynch’s concerns for the potential corruption of Dr. Alberti’s museological values are unfounded. “We are all patients in a medicalised world” he says quietly, the emotionally affective and ideological dimensions of medical collections remaining uppermost in his discussion.

Given that many medical collections seem to be traditionally presented in a very objective, didactical and dehumanizing fashion, Alex Woodall asked if medical collections might benefit from a more aesthetic interpretation—from the point-of-view of responsive, working artists. Dr. Alberti responded affirmatively that while many visitors do view the collection to improve their medical knowledge, some visitors attend with express interest in its aesthetic potential. This information further explicated an earlier assessment that the way museums are discussed, the professional categorization of museums as ‘medical collections’ ‘history collections’ or ‘art collections’, can potentially stratify and limit the potential use and interpretation of museum collections.

The Crystal Gallery, Dr. Alberti argued, though a medical collection is also essentially a narrative cultural artefact. Because the collection is exemplar to social narrative, many of the same practices applied in other types of museum contexts to engage the public, may be justifiably applied in the exhibition of scientific collections. When used as a narrative cultural artefact, medical collections potentially connect the visiting public to a greater awareness of not only their most basic ‘being’ or physicality, but to the experience of a deep recognition of what it means to be human and what it means to be alive.

In summation, during this term’s series of Brown Bag Seminar sessions the PhD community have shared conversations with:

5 October 2011

Speaker: Reiji Takayasu, Vice President of the Japanese Museum Management Association, (JMMA), National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo

Topic: New Wine Should Be Put Into A New Wineskin: The Science Communication Policy and new Movements in Japan

9 November 2011

Speaker: Britta Z. Geschwind, PhD student of the School of Cultural History, Stockholm University

Topic: Museums as Spaces for Learning: Shops and Entrances

23 November 2011

Speaker: Kevin Harris and Martin Dudley from Local Level

Topic: 'I didn't know I could'-Young People Looked After

30 November 2011

Speaker: Kate Hill, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Lincoln

Topic: Bygones: Investigating the History of Social History Collecting

and finally Dr. Alberti on medical museums. As diverse as these subjects may initially seem they have certain interests in common. Almost all seem to working towards the use of technology and science collections for the affective development of the visitor. Almost all of them have as their primary remit the wellbeing of the visiting public.

The seminars from this term also all seem (to me) to conclude that there is a story being told—a story ‘telling itself’—every time a visitor enters a display space. Who or what is telling this story? How is the story being told? Who is listening? Is the narrative of our collection, or our given exhibit, our museum or our museum gift shop—is the narrative unfolding all around us the story that we as curators want the visitor to be experiencing? And if it isn’t the story we want to support, why? Who are we to tell the visitor what to think, feel or know? Perhaps these topics and questions will be further discussed in future seminar sessions next term. I am grateful to Ceri Jones and Stephanie Bowry for arranging for the PhD community at University of Leicester Museum Studies what proved to be an engaging and illuminating afternoon seminar with Dr. Alberti. This report gratefully acknowledges the supportive editorial review of Jennifer Walklate. Posted with many thanks and a wish for the happiest of holidays to everyone.


Loft Ladders said…
The Crystal Gallery is well worth looking at.

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