As I walked through the car park to the Thackray Museum of Medicine’s imposing Victorian frontage, I can’t say that I was looking forward to what I might find inside. That is because I find medical museums often bring out my squeamish side and aren’t places I tend to visit much, so I felt a slight sense of trepidation at the thought of writing this review. Indeed, I had to prematurely end a recent trip to the Science Museum’s excellent Wellcome Galleries after the sight of a particularly gruesome object got the better of me.
But I am glad to report that, rather than a sense of queasy unease, my visit to the Thackray left me full of the joys of spring, having witnessed museum practice delivered so well. The venue doesn’t just talk the talk, mouthing platitudes about diversity and inclusivity, it rolls up its sleeves and gets stuck into walking the walk.
It’s certainly been worth the wait. When the museum closed in May 2019, nobody could have foreseen that it would still be shut almost two years later. With the pandemic hitting months before the planned reopening date, the 11 new galleries have had to wait under wraps. While the events of the past year have been devastating for the sector, they have served as a reminder of the importance of places such as the Thackray in helping people to make sense of large public-health events.
So much about what makes the Thackray special is rooted in its sense of place. The museum is in the Harehills area of Leeds in an old maternity ward, next to the current St James’s University Hospital, and the redevelopment pays respect to its surroundings. The new entrance hall has the “wow” factor with its grand staircase, which features the dark green Burmantofts tiles that were once a local speciality.
The galleries upstairs echo the building’s past, being set in the long wards where patients used to recuperate. You get a real sense of the museum’s previous life in the Cutting Edge gallery, where an array of medical innovations are viewed in a way that echoes a doctor or a nurse going bed to bed during their rounds.
Yet, it was one of the smallest touches that really got me. During the renovation, building work uncovered a section of floor where you can see the wear and tear on it from the years of patients and medical staff scuttling back and forth down the hospital corridors. It made me stop and wonder about all the people who must have passed through the building over the years.
The Thackray’s sense of place emerges from so much more than just the building. It’s also about the people who live close by. Little things such as providing a welcome in the six languages that are common to the Harehills area set the tone for what the Thackray is all about. When you consider that it has a new community space and a free day for local residents to enjoy the museum, you get the sense that the team are serious about engaging the visitors who are right on their doorstep.
What impressed me most was the commitment to community curation. The Thackray tells the story of medicine using the story of Leeds as its vehicle, so it is fitting that the people of the city have been part of the museum’s redisplay. With more than 200 individuals from 24 community groups involved in the redisplay, the diversity of experience presented to visitors is impressive.
This was especially true in the new Who Cares gallery, which tells the personal stories of the sometimes less-heralded medical professionals such as carers and nursing home staff. Here, tales of everyday domestic medicine are treated respectfully and on equal terms with those of conventional medical science.
In the Response to Crisis gallery, art from local service personnel tells the story of the physiological damage they suffered as a result of war, while in the Normal + Me gallery, the work of the artist Bobbi Rea celebrates the diversity of body shape. It’s refreshing to see this range of perspectives embraced so wholeheartedly.
My visit to the Thackray was an emotional experience. It can be all too tempting to sensationalise the revulsion and horror of medical history, but the new galleries have done a good job in avoiding this pitfall.
Even the mannequin-filled replica Victorian street scene, with its tragic story of a young girl who gets her leg trapped in a machine, does a good job on focusing on the sadness and empathy of the people around her rather than the horror of the accident at hand.
A real highlight of the visit was the story of Chris King, a Leeds man who received the first double-hand transplant in 2016. King is a real character and you feel the warmth and humility beam through the screen as you watch him pluck guitar strings and make himself a cup of tea.
At no time does he feel like a medical marvel or a page from a textbook, but rather comes across as an extraordinary person who you want to spend time with and get to know better.
Focus on inclusion
Overall, there’s a lot to like in the Thackray’s new galleries and the designer, The Creative Core, has given the museum a bright and contemporary feel. There is an artistic quality to much of the build and the museum will age all the better because of it.
If I have one criticism, it is that I would have liked to see a bit more made of some of the smaller areas. The morgue in particular was a powerful and well done space, but felt a bit hidden away. Similarly, the room set aside to display some of the museum’s more contemporary items felt cramped and a little uninviting.
But these are small gripes. And as I left the museum, I couldn’t help but feel restored. The Thackray, with its focus on diversity and inclusion, has done the impossible and cured me of my aversion to medical museums. I, for one, can’t wait to visit again.
Jamie Taylor is a freelance curator and content writer