Time for another GLAM Blog Club post! I am truly excited to write on the topic of ‘fear’. I’m going to tackle this topic from a variety of angles. Not just because I have many fears, but also because I work with some objects that absolute ignite fear in others.
To start, I’m going to write about my time curating a medical collection. A few years ago I realised that I very easily have vasovagal syncope episodes. Basically, for me, being somewhere medical can result in me fainting and feeling incredibly nauseous. There are also times when my vision has become very blurry and my pulse slows right down. It’s quite hard to manage and even when I try my absolute best not to pass out, it still happens. A couple of years ago now it hit me while I was standing in a pharmacy looking at some medication. I saw the word swelling, yes it only took seeing one word, and I was out. Vaccinations as well as blood tests almost always result in a vasovagal episode.
It is caused by a whole variety of triggers including fear of pain and/or bodily injury. Some people experience slight lightheadedness, whereas others, including myself, just full on faint. So how does this relate to fear in the museum?
I became interested in medical collections in 2015. It makes no sense that I would be wanting to work with the objects that have caused me so much grief. Nevertheless I thought this history was way too interesting for me not to pursue. The real test came with my first internship at the Geoffrey Kaye Museum in Melbourne.
On my first day, I was guided through the collection by my wonderful supervisor, and to my surprise I didn’t feel ill nor did I faint. I was even comfortable handling needles. I thought this was going to be a great turning point for me. However, I still faint at the site of a needle today when it is about to go into my arm.
While I was still frightened by some of the old medical equipment, the fact it wasn’t going to be used on me helped in not triggering an episode. Even with the more modern equipment, seeing it trapped behind glass or sitting on a museum storage shelf allowed me to disassociate it from pain. Ironically, the collection of the Geoffrey Kaye Museum and Harry Daly Museum, where I now work as a curator, is all about preventing and treating pain. Luckily for me, the collection generates a different kind of fear that is more focused on ‘I’d hate for that to happen to me in x century’ rather than ‘wow this is actually going to happen to me right here, right now’. Objects such as a full medical kit from World War I including scapels and saws, I can now appreciate for their incredible interpretive capacity and how they might have been experienced without placing myself in the picture.
Moving on now to something a little less ‘my medical history 101’. I want to briefly talk about a heritage site, Cockatoo Island. Since February this year, I have started running ghost tours of the island. Some of the stories we share are truly horrible and transform the site from a nice place to picnic on the weekend, to a site of trauma. Considering it was a hard labour prison for convicts for 30 years, then a reformitory school for girls, and a shipyard during World War I and World War II, there are no shortage of terrible stories.
The tour covers this gruesome history of the island including stories about convicts who were drowned and workers who were crushed to death in our Turbine Hall by large engines. It is truly a scary place. Out of respect to those who died, our tours focus more on the history of the site and tell the stories how they were reported on/how they were described by those who once worked on the island. Everytime though, I can feel chills up my spine and am so grateful to be on the island in the 21st century.
This was a great topic for GLAM Blog Club! Some of my fears, have joined me on my journey in the museum sector. Instead of shying away, I’m trying to work with them and not against them!