SchillaceMedicine, Mythos, Museums, and the Muse:
Museums on the Cutting Edge of Medical Humanities

By Brandy Schillace

The recent December 2013 issue of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry hosted its first medical humanities special section. In the introduction (“Meaning and Medicine in a New Key”), I began with the following quote:

“Is there any relation between disease and literature? To this question we have no hesitation in answering, Yes. We go so far as to say that without disease, or physical disability of some kind, there would be very little literature.” (From “Literature and Disease,” BMJ, 24 June, 1911).

Penned just over one-hundred years ago—and for an audience of practicing physicians and researchers—it seems to presage what we presently think of as a relatively “new” field: the medical humanities. In that article, I went on to describe some of the key differences between UK and US versions of medical humanities, something I also addressed on the blog for the Centre of Medical Humanities at Durham some time ago. From one perspective, it is a field made up of humanities scholars looking at medicine as object—while on the other, it is occupied principally by medical professionals and researchers who aim to use the humanities in the service of medicine. For both, the “human side of medicine” is key, but as you can probably imagine, exactly what that means varies considerably. But let us return to the quote above for a moment. The question at the turn of the century was not who ought to be studying or what (and whom) might be studied. Instead, it concerned a relationship.  Is there, the quote asks, a relationship between disease and literature? Between malfunction and mythos? Between medicine and the muse? Or—for our purposes—between medicine and the humanities? In answering yes, we raise a new question: how are these stories to be shared? Museum exhibits, I would guess, are not the first thing that comes to mind. But increasingly, both in the UK and the US, that is where important work for the medical humanities has been happening. Welcome to the courtship of medicine, mythos, museums…and the muse.

Medicine and Mythos
I should probably define mythos before I go on. Wrapped up in that word are worlds of interpretation—myth generally brings to mind the Greek gods, and with it a sense of something being “untrue.” But truth is itself a slippery term. I have been helping to develop medical humanities curriculum for the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, and the question of “truth” versus “fact” comes up quite often. If your patient believes she is Joan of Arc, you may be justified in calling it a delusion. However, to the patient, it is neither a lie nor a falsity. It is part of her perceived truth—and the extent to which a physician participates in the perceived truth depends largely on treatment goals. It is sticky business, and gets muddier yet when freshly minted medics must face—not outstanding delusions—but cultural beliefs quite different from their own. My work as managing editor of a medical anthropology journal has taught me never to devalue the beliefs of others; how many of our own cultural beliefs would appear bizarre in a different contextual light? Mythos is neither fact nor false; it represents cultural values transmitted from one generation or people group to the next—largely through story, art, and song. In other words, mythos refers to any of our most deeply held beliefs, an understanding so close that we cannot distinguish it from our own skin, knit to us—Jekyll and Hyde like—“closer than a wife, closer than an eye” (Stevenson 1886). As I endeavor to explain to my students, we must learn to appreciate and value the power of story, for “[w]e are narrative creatures, and narrative is often the vehicle by which new concepts are brought forward with clearest expression” (Schillace 2013). This is often a new concept for them—but it is not new. It is history, and it has been with us all along.

Museums and the Muse
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.

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.

foreign bodies
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. Now in their third year, Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowships support and develop public engagement with science. History—far from being lost in the past—is 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 medical collections around the world are beginning to reach out in similar ways.


© Laura Travis, photographer

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.  Since then, the Dittrick has been an interdisciplinary studies center of the College of Arts and Sciences of Case Western Reserve University. 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.


© Laura Travis, photographer


© Laura Travis, photographer

I am presently a research associate and guest curator, working with Chief Curator Jim Edmonson, and I also run the Dittrick Museum blog where we feature stories about our physical and online collections. Digital outreach alone is not, however, enough—we must do more. And so, in the past year, we greatly expanded our outreach events. Our two endowed lecture series, the Skuy Lecture and the Zverina Lecture, 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, who reflected upon the cult of celebrity in museums.  These were joined by several gallery talks, as well—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.

Programming for 2014 has already begun in earnest for the Dittrick, and in addition to a talk by Lucy Inglis of Georgian London on anatomy art, we are planning an Obscura Day event about forensics, Sherlock Holmes, and steampunk. We even hope to engage a poet-in-residence next fall, following in the footsteps of the Whipple Museum and the successful publication of Pocket Horizon, a book of poems and artistic expression about museum artifacts.  But, lest we forget, the medical humanities need not be left to the medical museums. Also in 2014 (and also in Cleveland), the Museum of Contemporary Art will be hosting Dirge, an exhibit about mortality and materials. I will be giving a gallery talk there in March—one more way that museums of several sorts might collaborate to show the multi-faceted natures of life, death, illness, and healing.

A Meeting Place
In all of this activity, we should aim for more than engagement. We want 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 crossroads for medical humanities. 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 be as the interdisciplinary center for medical humanities, a place for reading groups and curriculum development, a common ground to build from. Perhaps we may, like the Durham Centre for Medical Humanities itself, help to support this field of enquiry “in which humanities and social sciences perspectives are brought to bear upon an exploration of the human side of medicine” (CMH, Durham University).

Welcome to the future of medical humanities, where partnerships like these—where like-minded scholars, practitioners, and a public of intrepid and curious souls—support an inter-disciplinary look at what it means to be human.

Brandy Schillace, PhD is Managing Editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry and Research Associate and Guest Curator at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She is also the author of Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose blog which aims to honor, support, and share perspectives about medicine and humanities across cultures and disciplines.


Amy Catania · February 12, 2014 at 7:09 pm

I am glad to have come across this interesting article. Thank you! I am the director of a small museum, the Saranac Laboratory Museum, in upstate NY. We are organizing a temporary exhibition of antique medical devices and I’m trying to get a sense of how we want to present the material. I am considering applying for a grant to involve a humanities scholar in the creation of the exhibit. Would you be able to recommend anyone in our area who might be available to consult?
Thank you for any advice you can offer,

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