Once the sole voice of authority, medical museums increasingly see themselves as empowering their audiences (or “users”). And it has seldom been needed more. The Covid-19 experience turns citizens into participants in a medical drama that has not yet been scripted. While comprehensive, as it unfolds and in the years to come, the interpretation and narration of such a great event will be rooted in personal experience.
The museum doors are securely closed. But it is also an opportunity for large institutions to enrich our personal stories. Through a quarter of a century of digitization and enthusiastic experimentation, not to mention improvements in the Internet, museums allow online visitors to wander through collections, past exhibitions and virtual displays. While there’s nothing quite like being in the presence of the original, the online experience has its pros and cons. We can enjoy integrated stories based on images of objects that might never be physically adjacent, or from different institutions or even different countries.
For the moment, there are very few online exhibitions on the Covid-19, allowing to follow the evolution of the pandemic. The German Medical Museum (‘Covid 19 & history‘) offers a rare exception, but just as policymakers assemble policies and perspectives from what has gone before, museum’ visitors’ can find very rich resources in what has already been assembled. Exhibits on medicine deal with chronic issues such as blame, liability, laboratory shortages, and national leadership. At the start of the 20th century, Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary”, was introduced as a super-spreader. President Franklin Roosevelt was the victim of the polio epidemic a century before Boris Johnson fell ill with Covid-19. The Iron Lung, a tank ventilator, has stimulated the lungs of polio patients for decades.
Virtual visitors can choose not only in Britain, but around the world. Why not try out exhibitions on the 1918 flu epidemic of the National Museum of Health and Medicine near Washington, DC, the smallpox from the Dittrick Museum in Cleveland, or on epidemics from the Science Museum in London? Beyond these individual museum projects, there are a variety of large online platforms that integrate content from different sources. Europeana, Google Arts and Culture and Invent Europe all allow the user to invent new personal ways of synthesizing resources. These sites could be seen as the first stages in the development of a new art form. The Invent Europe The site, for example, incorporates a story written by experts with photographs of related objects taken in a variety of European museums. There are views of the history of penicillin from the perspective of Poland and TB from the Netherlands.
Here in the UK, it has been twenty years since Chris Smith, then Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, announced ‘Culture Online’, a massive internet initiative that would allow the public to access British culture from their salons and schools. The projects spurred by the aftermath of this lottery-funded initiative were designed at the turn of the 21st century in a different technical age, and these sites have generally closed, but we still benefit from the content they generated, although now reused. . Several, such as the Science Museum Group’s’Ingenious’ site are still made accessible by the National Archives. In turn, this had inspired the ‘Brought to life‘co-funded by the Wellcome Trust and although this has also been archived, the content is in transition and expansion on the Science Museum website.
Museums as physical sites, homes of physical and digital collections, clearly also have a role in recording this moment. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the superintendent of the British Patent Office and founder of the Patent Office Museum took it upon himself to preserve the emblems of technical change, saving the Stephenson’s Rocket (celebrated as the first modern steam locomotive) and many others invention markers. His work laid the foundation for the Science Museum. After World War I, Britain opened the Imperial War Museum. A century later, this institution is a primary source of learning about the national wartime experience.
Today, museums of all stripes are avidly collecting to preserve the memory of the pandemic. Projects from the Science Museum Group and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others, have already been announced. These collections – of test kits, medical equipment, official guidance, public expressions of solidarity – will allow museums around the world not only to create the authoritative record of the event, but also to help visitors. , hopefully in person, to reinterpret the experience. Medicine and indeed science are too important a part of our physical and imaginative life to be reserved for physicians. Museums are challenged to find ways to make sense of both the virus and the experience, for ourselves and for generations to come.
Robert Bud is Guardian Emeritus of the Science Museum in London.