Book Review: Medical Museums – Past, Present, Future

Samuel JMM Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam (eds.), The Royal College of Surgeons of England, medical museum history, 2013, ISBN 978-1-904096-21-4.

Wellcome Collection

Medical Museums: Past, Present, Future edited by Samuel JMM Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam offers an intriguing array of short papers on international medical museums. In total, the book contains sixteen chapters all concerning the past, present and future of medical museums. Themes of collection management, visitor interaction and use of space allow for a certain fluidity combining all chapters into one coherent piece. This is the great achievement of this book. Reading from beginning to end provides an overarching sense of how medical museums are adapting and growing in the modern era.

The book begins with an introduction on ‘bodies in museums’ by Samuel JMM Alberti and Elizabeth Hallam. Both are well-established experts in the field of medical museums. Alberti, the Director of Museums and Archives at the Royal College of Surgeons of England and Hallam, a research associate in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford.

The introduction clearly sets the rationale and motivations behind the creation of this book. It presents a historical and contemporary analysis of medical museums, ‘highlighting their scope and dynamic capacity for change’ (Alberti & Hallam 2013: 2). At the centre of the chapter is the role of the human body. Bodies are spectators, museum objects, and representations of society and culture. The introduction concludes with contemporary dilemmas faced by medical museums. Collection, display, and treatment of the body are all issues that continue to present challenges. Nevertheless, Alberti and Hallam argue that all challenges pave the way for innovation and flexibility allowing for new and redeveloped medical museums to emerge and prosper.

The proceeding chapters in the book are not grouped geographically or chronologically. Rather, there is an attempt to present each chapter as its own entity. Three chapters have been selected for a closer analysis as they perfectly embody the main themes presented in the introduction. Each has troublesome collections or problems with space that have allowed for innovation and transformation.

The chapter titled ‘The Museum of the History of Medicine in Zurich’ by Flurin Condrau effectively evaluates the past, present and future of the medical museum in Zurich. The chapter begins with an overview of the museum and its primary collector, Gustav Adolf Wehrli. The history of the museum is then traced with a focus on the museum’s constant role as a centre for learning. There is reference to medical students and staff utilizing the collection of the museum for educational means.

What is most engaging about this chapter is the discussion on the relocation of the collection. Although originally housed in the University of Zurich’s main building, in 1990 the entire collection was moved to Raemistrasse 69.

According to Condrau, when the museum moved location it ‘was situated at a distance both from its collections and also from academic research’ (Condrau 2013: 122). New directors embraced this feeling of displacement by seizing the opportunity for new exhibitions and teaching/learning initiatives. Welcoming new temporary exhibitions was one of the ways this museum grew into its new premises. As Condrau stresses, however, these constant temporary exhibitions left the museum without a strong identity. The conclusion of the chapter evaluates the future of the museum. Condrau argues that for a successful future, the museum must consider its relationship with the humanities and how it can hold ‘interdisciplinary conversations on health, illness and medicine’ (Condrau 2013: 128).

A chapter with a very similar focus is ‘Biomedicine on display: Copenhagen’s Medical Museion’ authored by Thomas Söderqvist and Bente Vinge Pedersen. Similar to the previously analyzed chapter, this chapter begins with a historical overview of the museum. To celebrate the rise of scientific medicine in the 19th century, Copenhagen physicians crowd sourced an array of medical objects that were displayed in the Danish Parliament building. After some deliberation, a permanent space for the objects was located where it remained until the 1990s. A project to reinvigorate the museum saw the collection moved to the Department of Public Health in the same decade.

With this move, came the need for a new identity. It was dubbed a Museion, ‘a place where the muses inspire intellectual and poetic activities’ (Söderqvist & Pedersen 2013: 149). This new identity, according to Söderqvist and Pedersen, allowed the Museion to integrate three museum functions: ‘research, outreach and curation’ (Söderqvist & Pedersen 2013: 150). With research at the centre, the museum has embarked on an ambitious outreach programme. This includes interactions with social media and implementing a museum, not medical, focus to bring the collection back to life.

The final chapter to be analyzed is by Samuel JMM Alberti on ‘The organic museum: The Hunterian and other collections at the Royal College of Surgeons of England’. John Hunter’s collection of medical curiosities was acquired by the Royal College of Physicians in 1799 forming a museum in 1813 reserved for medical professionals. Alberti traces an interesting shift from the Hunterian as a museum for medicine to that of a museum for heritage. Adapting its collection and displays to serve as ‘a tool for heritage’ has proved beneficial to the museum (Alberti 2013: 26]. The museum space has become resourceful, engaging the public and professionals in new and exciting ways.

The three examples provided all display how the themes of collection management, visitor interaction and use of space have transformed medical museums. Alberti and Hallam, through their selection and arrangement of papers, have successful argued the relevance of the medical museum continues today. Although meeting new challenges, many medical museums have taken the opportunity to innovate and expand.

It was a very significant decision to not group the museums into geographical location or even specific themes. Although seemingly random, on reading the entire book the purpose of the layout becomes clear. There are no preconceptions when reading the chapters allowing for the main themes to seamlessly run throughout the entire book.

The editors have achieved their aim of providing a book that critically analyzes and evaluates the current state of medical museums. All chapters seem to have the right balance of historical context and contemporary challenges. Each museum has stepped forward and revealed their insecurities resulting in a raw and insightful look into the function of the museum and its purpose. Alberti and Hallam should be congratulated on their efforts. They have uncovered the humanity behind the medical museum and breathed new life into an ever-changing institution.

Medical Museums
Medical Museums

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