Crisis management

Javier Pes investigates the challenges facing medical museums during the Covid-19 pandemic
Covid-19 Medicine
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Javier Pes
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The Medicine and Communities gallery in London's Science Museum
The Medicine and Communities gallery in London's Science Museum © Science Museum Group

“This is the biggest collecting challenge of my entire career,” says Natasha McEnroe, the keeper of medicine at the Science Museum in London, who, in the same way as thousands of museum professionals across the globe, has worked throughout the lockdown. But for medical curators, the coronavirus pandemic is different.

“For people interested in the history of medicine, it feels even more extraordinary to be living through history in this way,” says McEnroe. “We automatically place what’s happening today into the history of epidemics and pandemics in the past.”

Ken Arnold, who is the creative director at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen and the Wellcome Collection in London, is well placed to put the pandemic into a global perspective, as well as a historical one. He played a central role in the Wellcome’s Contagious Cities project, an international initiative that marked the centenary of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic through exhibitions and artistic commissions, including the first artists’ residency at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“In a weird way, it felt like this was our crisis,” says Arnold. “It quickly became so medical and technical. The world went from not knowing whether epidemiologists studied words or birds to being clear that they are the experts who work out statistically how many people were likely to get an infectious disease.”

Now the public is familiar with the basics – be it hygiene, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing for Covid-19 or the R rate of infection – medical curators are wrestling with the practical and ethical challenges of collecting the pandemic at every stage, while also defining the role of medical museums in the future.

The pandemic hit the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds as it was in the midst of a revamp. Nat Edwards, the museum’s chief executive, is clear about its priority going forward – putting this pandemic into perspective and offering hope.

“Our job is to be an antidote to fear,” he says. “Humans have found clever ways of overcoming disease. Medical museums should be helping people deal with this pandemic not as something catastrophic, which is how it is often presented in the media and on social media, but as something that we can have a measured view about. That is not to diminish the individual tragedies, or recording their experiences.”

Ethical collecting
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Natasha McEnroe, keeper of medicine, Science Museum

One of the first things the Science Museum did when the scale of the crisis became apparent was to draw up Covid-19 ethical guidelines (see box).

“Anything that could possibly be of use during the crisis has to remain in use,” says McEnroe. So the museum focused efforts on contacting people, to ensure that things were not thrown away. “But getting in touch with people was problematic in the early days. It was important that we didn’t distract people who are working to save lives.”

To avoid inadvertently spreading the virus, the Science Museum asked potential donors not to send in objects until it was ready to safely collect them. However, Downing Street did send the podium graphic declaring: “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.” The notice became part of the defining image of the first weeks of the UK’s lockdown, along with the politicians and public health experts making daily media appearances at Number 10.

As a result of the Medical Museion’s rapid response to collecting, it will be the permanent home of a chart used during the Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen’s press conferences during the early weeks of the crisis. When Italy, the first European country to be hit hard by the pandemic, appealed for international help, Denmark offered financial support and equipment, including ventilators.

“The Italians said they would take the money, but on closer inspection, they did not think that the ventilators would be of use,” says Arnold. “Someone in Denmark said it is a bit embarrassing to have these museum pieces. So we have been told that we can have any of them for our collection.”

As museums across Europe and the US responded to the PPE crisis in hospitals by donating their medical-grade facemasks and gowns, a few medical museums were able to offer something extra: historic objects. “The last generation of ventilators, of which we have many examples, was a little easier to make quickly,” says Edwards. Fortunately, the NHS was not overwhelmed as feared, and the historic machines and their components were not needed.

The Medical Museion in Denmark
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Covid-19 taskforce

Alexandra Lord is the chair of the National Museum of American History’s medicine and science division. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and its collection includes the syringe used by Jonas Salk to discover his polio vaccine in the early 1950s. Its role is to collect and record the pandemic for the nation. Lord and her colleagues were working on a new exhibition, In Sickness and In Health, when they learned of a potential new pandemic. That was in early December, reflecting the museum’s close links to the US government’s public health experts.

The museum has set up a Covid-19 taskforce, which speaks regularly to health experts in the US government and curatorial colleagues across the nation about how to respond to the pandemic and what to collect.

“We have to be careful that we don’t wind up with 163 facemasks,” says Lord. The museum is adding to its collection of patent medicines, to record the “quackery” that quickly arose around the pandemic. One curator is interested in the badges Girl Guides can earn during lockdown, while another is looking at the impact of the virus on the food industry and restaurants.

There is also collecting related to Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, who is a director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He has become something of a folk hero, as a voice of reason during the crisis, and the appearance of “Fauci swag”, including Mexican-style votive candles featuring the doctor’s image, has caught the Smithsonian curators’ attention.

Different priorities

Curators agree that when visitors return to medical museums, they will have different questions and concerns. Museums will have to address the pandemic sensitive to the fact that visitors may have had the virus or lost loved ones to it. Medical curators are well aware that as the WHO warns, there could be a second wave of mass infections as lockdowns ease across the globe.

Edwards thinks medical museums such as the Thackray need to focus on the fact that Covid-19 is a virus – it causes illness – and through a combination of care and medical innovation, a lot of things can be addressed. He thinks they can, therefore, play an important role in combating G5 conspiracy theories, and the “fetishised experience” of the pandemic. He cites wearing facemasks in the middle of nowhere as an example of the latter.

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Our job is to be an antidote to fear. Humans have found clever ways of overcoming disease.

Nat Edwards, director, Thackray Museum of Medicine

The Wellcome Collection’s acting head of public programmes, Ana Botella, admits that the pandemic has been “quite a journey” – professionally and for the institution. The first institution in London to go into lockdown, before the UK government’s guidance, the Wellcome Collection had been planning a wide-ranging programme on the theme of “happiness”. Due to open at the end of May, it has been pushed back indefinitely.

“We were going to look at ideas of joy, togetherness and happiness as a political stance,” says Botella. “We were trying to make it work, then realised it is impossible.”

Instead, when the Wellcome Collection reopens, it will organise an ultra-flexible “interim” programme. While the content is a work in progress, Botella confirms that for the first time, the museum will include a key strand that is “hyperlocal.” It sounds a smart move, with all museums expecting a dramatic fall in visitor numbers, especially tourists, while those that come will face time slots and social-distancing measures.

“It is about whether we can create radically different engagement with visitors that is about intimacy – a one-to-one relationship between the visitor and the content,” says Botella. “It is also about thinking about the neighbourhood. We have never thought of ourselves as a local museum.”

Lord and her colleagues at the Smithsonian are constantly looking ahead, however uncertain the future seems, while having one eye on the past. “We are at the end of the beginning in the US,” says Lord. Curators at the Smithsonian have left space in the new long-term exhibition about infectious diseases and public health. But she is realistic about whether it might feature the discovery of a vaccine for Covid-19, as a museum has to temper hope with history.

“We have been looking for an HIV/Aids vaccine for a long time,” cautions Lord. “We hope that when the exhibition opens [in 2021], there will be a vaccine for Covid-19 – but we cannot be sure.”

Javier Pes is a freelance journalist

The Science Museum’s ethical collecting guidelines

The Science Museum Group (SMG) drew up ethical guidelines for Covid-19 collecting in March, which will be reviewed as the pandemic develops. It stresses the challenges and sensitivities around collecting during a global emergency: “We are determined that our approach should be both considered and ethical, and that collecting will only take place if it is essential and time-critical during the pandemic.” As well as London’s Science Museum, the SMG includes the National Railway Museum in York, which is focusing on transport, and the Media Museum in Bradford, which is concentrating on broadcasting and public health messages.

  • SMG is aware of implied approval or support from the Science Museum when collecting new technology and will attempt to mitigate this.
  • SMG will make no communication or ask for any action that will take medical practitioners, NHS workers or those involved in response efforts away from their important duties.
  • SMG will take no action that might involve an increase in human contact at times of recommended isolation or lockdown, such as deliveries or other movement of material or people.
  • SMG will be respectful and sensitive to the fact that lives and livelihoods are at risk, both in the collecting and future display of this material.
  • SMG will ensure that our collecting is considered and properly documented to ensure maximum usefulness for future research and display.
Collecting medical material in a pandemic

Like many medical curators, I often find myself investigating the acquisition potential of my personal encounters with medicine, with each experience viewed through collecting goggles.

A letter arrives reminding me to attend my latest cervical cancer screening – perhaps this could be an addition to the archives; I input data into an app that tracks my menstrual cycle – maybe a digital collecting challenge; my tooth cracks and falls out requiring a temporary denture – can you ever have enough dentures in a medical collection?

But what happens when, in a matter of weeks, medicine dominates local and global conversations, seeping into our homes and work, infusing almost every aspect of our lives?

Suddenly, I’m confronted by an immense and overwhelming stream of collecting opportunities, although it’s also a simultaneous source of anxiety, grief and confusion.

Weeks before coronavirus was labelled a global pandemic and the sheer enormity of the situation became clear, conversations had already begun among the medical curatorial team at London’s Science Museum about how we might collect Covid-19.

We discussed the ephemeral nature of public health messaging at airports regarding the virus and how this might be lost if we didn’t act quickly. We pursued the collection of a “failed” front cover from a national newspaper depicting the no-longer-premiered James Bond film. We asked friends and colleagues about their experiences and encounters with the virus abroad. But I doubt anything could have prepared us for what was to emerge over the coming weeks.

Now, months after packing our belongings and leaving the Science Museum offices, we continue to develop and grapple with the ethical collecting of Covid-19. “Home” has become a slippery term, as has “work”. Where does my experience of the pandemic end and the collecting project begin? How does my relationship with collecting change when I cannot leave it at work at the end of the day? And when the best thing we can do to protect one another is to stay away, how then do we collect this pandemic?

The usual aspects of contemporary collecting that I love have been imbued with new and profound complexities. Done well, medical collecting is inherently personal and sensitive, but digital screens and distance present unique challenges to this human-centred way of working.

Where we might usually organise a site visit and one-to-one chat with a potential donor centred around the visual and tactile (through gloved hands) experience of investigating an object, we must now carefully consider how to make contact in a time when people are vulnerable, anxious and often busy carrying out essential work.

I am, however, noticing small positives arising from this profoundly disruptive and challenging time. I have witnessed many genuine acts of kindness among colleagues. Simply asking “how are you?” has become far more meaningful.

Communication across the museum sector has reached new heights, with many taking part in collaborative discussions and approaches to collecting the pandemic.

And museums have been presented with an opportunity to proactively and – as far as possible – inclusively record arguably the most globally shared medical experience of our lifetime.

Imogen Clarke is an assistant curator, medicine, at the Science Museum, London

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