In the late 19th century, at a time when women were challenging traditional ideas about gender that excluded them from political and intellectual life, medical and scientific experts drew on notions of female weakness to justify inequality between the sexes. Artist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was discouraged from pursuing a career to preserve her health, rejected these ideas in a terrifying short story titled “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The famous tale served as an indictment of the medical profession and the social conventions restricting women’s professional and creative opportunities.
The exhibition was launched at the National Library of Medicine in 2009 and then traveled the USA. Visit the exhibition website to explore the online version and access educational resources for high school and university students.
Birdsall, C., Parry, M., & Tkaczyk, V. (2015). “Listening to the Mind: Tracing the Auditory History of Mental Illness in Archives and Exhibitions,” The Public Historian, 37(4), 47-72. DOI: 10.1525/tph.2015.37.4.47
With increasing interest in the representation of histories of mental health in museums, sound has played a key role as a tool to access a range of voices. This project investigates how sound can be used to give voice to those previously silenced. The focus is on the use of sound recording in the history of mental health care, and the archival sources left behind for potential reuse. Exhibition strategies explored include the use of sound to interrogate established narratives, to interrupt associations visitors make when viewing the material culture of mental health, and to foster empathic listening among audiences. Listening to the Mind: Tracing the Auditory History of Mental Illness in Archives and Exhibitions was published in the Public Historian and presented at the LARM conference on Digital Archives, Audiovisual Media and Cultural Memory, Copenhagen in 2013, the International Federation for Public History Inaugural Meeting in Amsterdam, 2014, and the Wellcome Collection in 2015.
€315,000 research project studying the social relevance of medical museums, culminating in a book and exhibition at Special Collections, University of Amsterdam. While the collections of medical museums, including human remains, are sometimes labeled as “curiosities,” the title refers instead to the idea that it is entirely human to be curious about bodies and that curators can harness that interest in socially-useful ways. However, stakeholders at medical museums disagree on the role of their institutions in contemporary society, on the capacity of audiences to understand complex or sensitive medical issues, and on the most effective exhibition strategies. This project analyzes current medical museum exhibition strategies to identify dominant narratives as well as marginalized histories, and investigate their implications for health and wellbeing.
The focus includes four areas where medical museums could make a significant impact: mental health, infectious diseases, sexuality/reproduction, and bodies of difference (addressing race and disability). This research is of direct relevance to museum practitioners, and is therefore being developed in collaboration with medical museums. Project output includes a Heritage Lab demonstrating interpretive strategies for medical heritage, an online tool for museums and their audiences, as well as an open access journal article and a book. The project will provide the first detailed analysis of exhibition strategies across a range of European medical museums, and the first in-depth study to specifically consider the role of medical museums in promoting health and wellbeing.