Human Curiosities (2016-2020)

€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.