How do we build community? What makes it possible?

Visitors in the Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments, one of the most comprehensive in the country

Visitors in the Percy Skuy contraception gallery. Image © Frank Lanza Photography.

The Medical Humanities, operating at the intersection of fields, aims to bring diverse perspectives together. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the mad tumult and breakneck pace at which we presently live, it’s increasingly difficult to be heard – though we are less like voices crying in a wilderness and more like people shouting at a hurricane. Carving out space for truly meaningful engagement is tricky business, and today I am going to liken it to a similar issue faced by museums and libraries.

This past September, I went, with curator James Edmonson and other members of the Dittrick Museum staff, to the meeting of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences. The conference title spoke directly to this concern about reaching out: “Between Medical Collection and their Audiences.” (I live-tweeted the event, and the storify may be reached here). The space “between” is of critical importance: how do we—as interdisciplinary scholars, as medical humanities professionals, as curators of history and culture—build bridges to the publics we serve?

Ivory anatomical manikin, circa 1600, Dittrick Museum.

Ivory anatomical manikin, circa 1600, Dittrick Museum. Image © Laura Travis.

These are questions we have been asking, too, at the Dittrick Medical History Center. Housed in the Allen Memorial Medical Library, we provide a beautiful building and a practical space – but also much more. Our historical collections are diverse—ivory anatomy models, Beck’s defibrillator, Vesalius’s Fabric of the Human Body–but these objects simply do not speak for themselves. Even if images are worth a thousand words, those words are still important. We are narrative creatures, driven by story, and as our audiences become increasingly diverse, so must the stories we tell. One thing that has become increasingly clear to me since leaving the usual tenure track appointment in favor of museum work is this: that there is a real hunger for alternatives and intersections. Hybridity and interdisciplinarity garner a lot of press; they appear as buzz words in media, advertisements for colleges and universities, and mottos for business. But frequently, inter-disciplinary thinking, learning, and application are difficult to put into practice. One way to build such communities is to start with the community networks we already have, forming alliances between the medical humanities and medical museums and libraries. We at the Dittrick believe in the value of such inter-changes, and want to make them an integral part of all we do. Here’s a look at some of these inroads.

To build–and so to provide–a robust inter-disciplinary community, the Dittrick Museum has focused on membership, exhibit engagement, social media presence, and event planning. We opened our doors as host to a medical humanities reading group (Humanities and Social Medicine), and that has led to some wonderful intersections. Beth Linker, a historian, will be giving a talk titled “Disabled Doughboys: How the Great War Changed American Medicine,” based in part on her work War’s Waste. Linker focuses on how reformers, inspired by the new social and medical sciences, pushed rehabilitation as a means to “rebuild” disabled soldiers. The story of War’s Waste culminates in the postwar establishment of the Veterans Administration, one of the greatest legacies to come out of the First World War. In advance of her talk, the medical humanities reading group chose to discuss her work among the historians, sociologists, anthropologist, literature professors, clinicians, students and Dittrick staff that make up the group. In that way, the museum provides space and speaker, and the group provides new and excited participants looking to engage across disciplinary boundaries.

Kate Manning, signing books in the contraception gallery after her talk

Kate Manning, signing books in the contraception gallery after her talk. Image © Frank Lanza Photography

Creating a community also means welcoming those beyond the walls to join us in new ways. This past September, we hosted a book talk by Kate Manning (author of My Notorious Life), packing the Zverina room for a talk about women’s issues, women’s health, contraception, history, and fiction. Kate signed books, gave a reading, and talked about the value of museum collections for her work. A link to the talk appears here; as Kate said, “here at the museum, I am surrounded by the things I once only imagined.”


Members at one of the Explorations talks, this one on the changing doctor-patient relationship brought about by the stethoscope. Image © Frank Lanza Photography

We’ve also begun to offer more intimate talks, the Explorations, for our members (non-member attendees pay an entrance fee). These provide interesting and behind the scenes chats about the museum, but also about history and the humanities more generally. At EAMHMS, Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy spoke about similar work, bringing in those outside the museum to offer lectures (I actually gave a few of these). Her point: people want to be part of something—so create a venue that allows for crucial connections. The Wellcome Collection of London leads the way in precisely this, expanding and recreating the very notion of “library” and “museum.” From exhibitions like “The Human Condition” about the idiosyncrasies of being human to the permanent exhibit “Medicine Now,” the Wellcome serves as a model for reaching beyond the walls.

Members of the Medical Humanities Reading Group at Case Western Reserve University

Members of the Medical Humanities Reading Group at Case Western Reserve University. Image © Frank Lanza Photography

At the Dittrick, we’ve begun to plan and host tours that literally get beyond the walls; a trolley tour of the Lakeview Cemetery provides insight into medical pioneers (and mavericks) from Cleveland’s past and is scheduled for the Halloween season. Later in the year, we’ll be hosting a museum mystery night. Future Explorations include a talk about  medical history and Dittrick’s rare herbals collection—and future events may consist in city tours of historical relevance. Provide a narrative, the story of our shared medical past. Provide a space—not just a place—and a reason to see the relationships among culture, society, health, gender, and more. To engage with the human side of medicine has always been one of the goals of medical humanities; to engage with the human at the interstices of culture, history, medicine and the humanities is also the goal of many a medical and scientific museum.

And so, with our continued programs and projects–and a robust online platform (twitter, instagram, web, and blog), the Dittrick museum has sought to be a center for outreach and engagement. We’ve also sought to be a center for medical humanities, and we welcome other like-minded affiliations. Join us. Be part of the community. Let’s make history.

A medical-humanities scholar, historian, and author, Dr. Schillace writes about culture, history, and intersections of medicine and literature. She is Research Associate, guest curator, and public engagement for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History and Managing Editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry (an international journal of cross-cultural health research). Dr. Schillace’s co-edited collection, Unnatural Reproductions and the Monstrous publishes in 2014 with Cambria Press, and her monograph Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying can Tell us about Life and Living will be released in 2015 with Elliott and Thompson. She writes for Huffington Post, H-net, and the Centre for Medical Humanities Blog, and manages the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose (the latter of which hosts a series of round-table discussions on the use of digital platforms by museums and libraries). Dr. Schillace is an invited lecturer for the New York Academy of Medicine’s Vesalius 500, where she will talk about 18th century anatomy. Visit her website for more:


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