Dr Sam Alberti – Poynter Lecturer 2016
We are grateful to Dr John Firth for this summary of the 2016 Poynter Lecture.
The evening began with a plug for the 2017 BSHM 27th Congress at Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh 13th – 16th September. The four themes of the Congress are “Women in Medicine” , “Scotland’s contribution and influence”, “Apothecaries and their successors”, “Art and photography in medicine”. Full details www.bshm.org.uk/congress
The Poynter Lecture is the annual lecture organised by the British Society for the History of Medicine which this year was delivered on 12th October at the Wellcome Collection. Dr Frederick Noel Lawrence Poynter (1908-1979) was Librarian then Director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. He was a medical historian and wrote several books and articles specialising in Tudor Medicine. He was also active in professional societies, being President of the British Society for the History of Medicine in 1972 and Secretary-General of the International Academy of the History of Medicine.
Dr Sam Alberti
The auditorium takes over 150 people and I estimated there were over 90 attending. The talk “Finding patients in the Medical Museum” was given by Sam Alberti whom I met when he organised a series of lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons where he was the Curator of the Hunterian Museum. Six months ago he became Keeper of Science and Technology in the National Museums of Scotland. Iain Macintyre, President of BSHM introduced Dr Alberti.
The patient objectified but the doctor remembered
The lecture began by discussing the trends in medical museums, giving a historical perspective richly illustrated by historical examples such as Barts, the Wellcome Museum and the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité (founded by Rudolph Virchow) amongst many others. Medical museums were at their peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Dividing Museums into “Wet or Dry” he suggested that each had a different trajectory. Museums in that era showed anonymised specimens as examples of disease, often with the patient’s story removed. He showed examples of the Hunterian Museum area devoted to Lister with instruments he designed and some given as gift that he would have been too critical of to use. Patients became objectified. Medical Museums commemorated the Doctor, not the patient (eg Lister, Jenner, Fleming). Dr Alberti pointed out that Henry Wellcome collected massively to represent the patient experience. Over 100,000 of the items he amassed went to the Science Museum and patients were well represented.
Finding the patient
The Science Museum Galleries are being renovated and new medical galleries will open in 2019. Dr Alberti used the example of the Dittrick Museum in Ohio as a museum with a more narrative approach and heritage function.(http://artsci.case.edu/Dittrick/). The Charité in Berlin is his favourite museum. Situated in the old hospital wing each museum bay contains a “bed” each showing the case of a patient.
Having been in his position in the National Museums of Scotland for just six months he recognises that it exhibits “Science and technology with some medicine”. But the museum has incorporated examples of patient experience of bio medicine and the impact of technological change. He showed a small case study of asthma which focused on the experience of having asthma. Illustrated by a rugby player who lives with asthma Dr Alberti reflected that it is all very well what you can do with disability but there is a fine line exemplified by a patient who said “just because I have prosthetic leg I don’t want to use it to run a marathon”
He showed some older prosthetic arms that were offered to those affected by Thalidomide but they were too clumsy and some individuals chose not to wear them. “Better without” they reckoned. Returning to some historical examples in museums he pointed out that some are not anonymised, like the Irish Giant Charles Byrne whose skeleton is in the Royal College of Surgeons. He showed an embroidery from 1848 by Charlotte Waite who was one of the first children to be operated on using chloroform. Also in the Hunterian is a severe scoliotic spine now accompanied by an audio by the historian Ruth Richardson who suffers from the same condition. Dr Alberti says there is need “to reunite human remains with patients”. Incorporating art and photography in this endeavour, he showed an example of a laryngeal specimen taken from an opera singer and photoshopped to lie over her neck. The exhibition Re-Framing Disability at the Royal College of Physicians consists of portraits which depict disabled men and women of all ages and walks of life, many of whom earned a living exhibiting themselves to the public. The hidden histories behind the portraits are examined. (see https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/re-framing-disability-portraits-royal-college-physicians )
“Disability in a box”
Dr Alberti referred to “Cabinet of curiosities” . Rather than term for the precursor of museums (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_curiosities) he was referring to “Cabinet of curiosities how disability was kept in a box” which was in 2014. Full details can be found at http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/rcmg/projects/cabinet-of-curiosities. A more recent series where art merged with museum was “Exceptional and Extraordinary” . This project invited four artists to explore behind the scenes of eight of the UK’s most renowned medical museums and, in collaboration with experts in medical history, disability and museums, produced a series of thought-provoking new commissions that examine our attitudes towards difference and aim to stimulate debate around the implications of a society that values some lives more than others. (see http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/rcmg/projects/exceptional-an and http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/documents/e-e-all-performances-final).
In “Transplant” there is collaboration between artists Tim Wainwright and John Wynne and the transplant surgery unit at Harefield Hospital. It began in 2006 with a year-long residency at Harefield Hospital where the artists recorded and photographed patients, staff and the hospital environment. The project eventually developed into a series of photographic and sonic works, exhibitions and publications.
See http://www.transplantproject.com/ for full details.
War, Art and Surgery
“War Art & Surgery” exhibited at the RCSEng which was a contemporary response by the Artist Julia Midgley to surgeon artist Henry Tonks’ WW1 pastel portraits of facial reconstruction. A YouTube video is available. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyFV67kthnk.
The lecturer reflected on comments by soldiers that soldiers’ deaths make news more than the rehabilitation of the injured. One contrast between war injuries 100 years ago and the present is the rising proportion of limb losses from IED’s. He pointed out that capturing narrative is easier historically. The exhibition “Life Support” (see http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-war-museum/whats-on/life-support/) is about the support systems and the medical treatment. Curators worked with the soldiers words on the labels. The voices of the personal are there, but Dr Alberti pointed out co-curation can be risky. He asked if we are making the soldier a victim …. the hero versus the cripple. A clinical support network had to be in place. He finished by saying that the perspective of clinicians, nurses and ancillary staff need to be incorporated but the role is in the patient. The Science Museum currently has the exhibition “Wounded” which he recommended.
The lecture finished with the words “it is an exciting time to be visiting medical museums”.
All in all it was a thought provoking evening.