Museums and the Muse: The Future of Collections in a Digital Age

Brandy Schillace's picture

By Brandy Schillace, PhD
Managing Editor, CMP
Research Associate and Guest Curator, Dittrick Museum of Medical History

On December 6th, 2013, I attended the 225th anniversary of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Historical Medical Library (also the parent body of the Mütter Museum). The event was celebrated with a day-long conference, titled “Emerging Roles for Historical Medical Libraries: Value in the Digital Age.” The conference comprised meaningful engagement with an ever-present concern: what is the future of libraries? Or rather do libraries have a future? (You can get the highlights here, on storify.) In general, colleagues expressed continued support of the institutions and their collections just as they are.  On the other side, however, a number of the presenters discussed digital mediums and why they matter…notably Simon Chaplin from the Wellcome Library and Jeff Reznick from the National Library of Medicine. But one thing that perhaps wasn’t talked about quite enough (here or anywhere else) is this: how do we promote the interstices between digital and actual? How do we convince an audience quite unlike us that these spaces and places matter? In other words, how do we think outside ourselves so that we might ensure a future for libraries and museums?

Digital technologies—databases, search engines, and social media—offer both possibilities and hidden dangers. A quick look at recent articles reveals an understandable fear: will virtual replace actual? After all, who needs a whole building (and staff) for a virtual museum? If that sounds unlikely, consider that these questions are being asked across the country. We must have ready answers. First and foremost, digital technology should be a beacon pointing us towards collections in the same way landscape paintings point us toward outdoor air and light. No two-dimensional image, no matter how skillfully created, will replace the thing itself. Or rather, to do so, it must provide the 3-D engagement, with sight, smell, fair wind, cool nip, texture and exertion of actual experience. In other words, it must employ endless resources, great funds of money, and many minds working tirelessly to produce what we can already see in the thing itself. Thus, the purpose for digital collections is two-fold: 1) they should give us the desire to see more out there in the world or 2) they should tide us over if the “out there” is yet beyond our reach.

A Practical Example
Big ideas are never much use without practical application. So, how do we encourage the public to come see actual artifacts and books? A museum is much more than its artifacts, and in this new digital age, it must be more than a static venue of display cases. Those windows to the past are valuable indeed, but they do not speak for themselves. Medical museums, not unlike libraries, are collections of stories—a storied past told through physical artifact, through steel, and ivory, and bone.

As I say in a recent article for Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham, UK, the Wellcome Collection and Library of London demonstrate this with admirable skill and cohesion. Using medical artifacts, artwork, public engagement (and public engagement fellows), the Wellcome tells unique stories at the intersection of medicine and the humanities. A recent exhibit, Foreign Bodies, Common Ground set up six artist residencies in different medical research centers to showcases a diverse body of work from Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and the UK. Another upcoming exhibit, Thinking with the Body, features Wayne McGregor and his company Random Dance. These boundary bending exhibits are as far from static museum cases as you are likely to get—they are conversations, endlessly expanding in all directions to explore medicine and the human. But the Wellcome’s unique approach to the discoveries and history of medicine has resulted in a call beyond the walls. Though the physical space is housed in London, Wellcome’s online image database has become a means not only of interesting a wider and more distant public, but of disseminating the Wellcome’s collection (and in doing so, advertising it).

History—far from being lost in the past—is by these means coming out to meet new friends. The story of medicine’s past offers something valuable to medicine’s future, a new way of interfacing between worlds that is both physical and digital, then and now. We enter the story through these public spaces, and through digital mediums, medical collections around the world are beginning to reach beyond them as well. What we see is a convergence of exhibit, interaction, and digital outreach.

The Dittrick Museum of Medical History
Since spring of 2013, I have been engaged at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History—or, more properly, the Dittrick Medical History Center, a name taken in 1998 to reflect the variety of collections (artifacts, rare books, archives, and images) that reside here.  The staff includes Chief Curator Jim Edmonson, archivist and registrar Jennifer Nieves, and photographer and assistant curator of multimedia and communications Laura Travis. My own role is a varied one, but at its core is the promotion of the three elements mentioned above: exhibit (because I research and curate), interaction (because I get to help staff plan and execute pubic lecture series), and digital outreach (because I promote through blog, twitter, and other digital means). The Dittrick has a valuable collection of microscopes, a number of Darwin’s letters, the most comprehensive collection of surgical instruments in America, and the largest collection of historical contraceptives in the world. It is my goal to let the world know it.

I took over the Dittrick Museum blog in May 2013. This platform allows us to feature stories about our physical and online collections—not in an attempt to replicate them, but as a means of re-contextualizing them and re-presenting them. Who wouldn’t want to read a post about food poisoning called Death in the Pot? Who doesn’t love a post about Claude Beck’s preserved heart on Valentine’s Day? The blog also reminds viewers of the website’s online exhibits, those photographic records of artifacts not presently on display. The use of social media has been an added benefit, boosting our reach and our numbers—the blog, for instance, now has 640 subscribers (from 164 in April 2013).

In addition, I run our twitter feed @DittrickMuseum (and I support it with my own @bschillace). What conceivable good could that possibly do? More than you might guess. Twitter, used correctly, is a brilliant word-of-mouth platform for events and lectures. In 2013, we held two endowed lecture series, the Skuy Lecture and the Zverina Lecture, and brought in clinical researcher Robert Reid to speak on contraception, and Lindsey Fitzharris, the “Chirurgeon’s Apprentice,” to tell the human stories behind medical museum specimens.  We also hosted Natasha McEnroe, director of the Nightingale Museum in London. This spring we have three additional events, and will host three more speakers (Lucy Inglis, David Jones, and Andrea Tone speaking, respectively, on obstetric anatomy, cardiac surgery, and contraception). These are joined by gallery talks, free receptions with an open invitation to our community and beyond to join us, to hear the stories, to seek the human behind the medicine. The audiences we seek already subscribe to twitter; it is quick, it is easy, it requires only seconds of their time and attention. By advertising the event and linking it to the blog post, I send it out to local, national, and international channels at once.

The Dittrick also tries to engage with initiatives that have a wide appeal. With the 100th anniversary of the First World War upon us, many historical collections are being perused for material related to this great conflict.  Archivists Jennifer Nieves (Dittrick Museum), Dianne O’Malia  (Stanley A. Ferguson Archives of the University Hospitals of Cleveland) and Fred Lautzenheiser (Cleveland Clinic Foundation) are busy identifying materials within their collections that document the Lakeside Unit in Paris and in Rouen.   This cooperative effort has brought to light some truly exciting items like scrapbooks, photo albums and surgical reports that document the activities of the Lakeside Unit, directed by Dr. George W. Crile of Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.   This medical team was dispatched to the American Ambulance in Paris for three months in 1915 to treat the French and British forces.  To provide access to these collections, a website is currently under construction and there are plans for several exhibits. 

Finally, lest we forget, the connections we forge with our community and with community institutions is also part of this outreach process. We “follow” the feeds of other institutions, and that support moved from the digital into actual relationships. In 2014 Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art will host Dirge, an exhibit about mortality and materials. We linked our temporary exhibit on anatomy art and the talk by Lucy Inglis on anatomy illustrator Jan Van Rymsdyk. Additionally, I will be giving a gallery talk at MOCA in April—one more way that museums of several sorts might collaborate to support exhibit, interaction, and outreach.

A Word about “Place”

I mentioned above that one of the arguments we face is ‘why the building’? To answer, we must remember to aim for more than mere engagement, more than nods of acknowledgement. When a visitor leaves our museum, I hope they carry away a spark of inspiration. Frankenstein was inspired, in part, by Galenic electrical experiment, Jekyll and Hyde by double-brain theories, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Creeping Man by burgeoning ideas about hormone therapy, and myriads of novels by the work of Charles Darwin and other evolutionary theorists. Fiction often serves as a vehicle for our hopes and fears, a place to reflect on progress and what is gained and lost by it. Museums, as meeting place of story, object, and subject, may serve not only as windows to the past but as places where different aspects of the humanities (and the human) meet. May we inspire and enlighten. May we light up the past and so light the soul of creativity in those who visit us.  The future role of medical museums may even be as the interdisciplinary center for medical humanities, “in which humanities and social sciences perspectives are brought to bear upon an exploration of the human side of medicine” (CMH, Durham University)—something I talk about in another post: Medicine, Mythos, Museums, and the Muse: Museums on the Cutting Edge of Medical Humanities. By providing a physical place for reading groups, think-tanks, and learning-centered outreach, we have a common ground to build from.

To take a page from Simon Chaplin of Wellcome: let’s turn unused spaces into inviting, welcoming areas for groups, for discussion. That does seem antithetical to the purpose of library reading rooms… but then again, we don’t read the way we used to. Some will argue we are trying to make these spaces into wifi cafes. To that I answer: maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. I love working in cafes–who doesn’t? But imagine a cafe that also had a rare book exhibit, an artifact collection, an engaging event. People, and our young people especially, are eager to learn the value of experiential knowledge–they just don’t know it yet. That, I think, is our job, and our future. Bring them in, engage them, send them out into a bigger world.

We must and should embrace technology. Technology is a tool. May it help us retain the real we crave as the fuel for life and living.



Brandy, I was struck by the image posted of yourself and collector the John Davidson...especially that the display case was open and you both were engaging closely with an object. Ok, maybe this was staged somewhat for the photographer (?) but even so, the decisions made to reach that composition seemed to me to speak to this idea that what we all really want to do is have close access to objects...perhaps that's why some individuals elect a curatorial career path?

Thank you! I love that photo, too. It wasn't staged, actually--I was lost in a moment of discovery and Jim (chief curator of the Dittrick) snapped the shot. You are right, though; this near engagement is what we often long for. And, of course, because objects are sensitive and delicate, we often can't give people this kind of access. It is a privileged space that, in some ways, seems at odds with what we most hope to do--bring people in closer. I think that is one future of the digital in museums, to give people a more three-dimensional and up-close look at objects. I think the Wellcome will be doing this with "explorer tables" soon, and we are looking into those possibilities at the Dittrick as well. But programming has also been wonderful in terms of outreach; the collector in the photo, John Davidson, kindly joined us for a hands-on Saturday event, where he showed a group of 40 people some of his treasures. (We also had a gentlemen operating a fragrance distillery with 100-year-old glass components). I agree that good things can happen at the convergence of artifact-behind-glass, artifact-digitally-rendered, and artifact-physically-presented.

I recall two jolts from being shown the real thing (without handling) - one was a strip of papers with dots on the ones that gave positive results for HIV infection, and the other was a fingerprint baked into a pre-historic pot. As a huge devotee of the real thing, I subscribe to the utility of photographs of things that will be put away again, or are too small or fragile to be handled en masse; however, I doubt that either of these things would have felt quite the same through glass or in print. There is massive potential in virtual methods for encouraging the viewer/engagee to think about things in a different way, but the real thing is the starting point for museum collections.

The big snag for digital would be the absence of power (electricity, mainly) - computers aren't much use if they're under 20 feet of water (we're a bit more sensitive about floods in Southern England lately).

For me, I think the first "wow" museum moment took place in Roscoe Village, Ohio. There is a small museum there, but they have a fantastic collection of Japanese work, including one of the porcelain models often used in medicine. While we were not allowed to touch it (a class tour of 6th graders handling objects was probably not a good idea), the guide let us see it closely. It was a remarkable moment--and now, at the Dittrick, we have three ivory manikins made in Germany in the 16th century. Though not used the same, they always make me think of that first "a-ha" moment. There is something about the real thing that can never be replaced.

At the same time, a colleague of mine from the Cleveland Museum of Art recently told me that the greatest users of their online interface are from other countries--often far-flung places. For them, the digital is as close to reality as they can get. I am always of two minds about this; on one hand, we want our digital materials to get people into the museum, especially to events where the glass can be taken away (figuratively if not always actually). It's a balancing act, isn't it? We endeavor to do it well, but it's so hard to find the perfect mix of tech vs. actual.

I'd like to hear more from other museums of medicine and technology about how they are handling it. What are some good strategies?