A Love Letter to the Hospital Museum

 

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As our favourite commericalised-holiday-that-profits-off-the-commodification-of-our-desire-to-be-loved-in-this-lonely-lonely-world rolls around yet again, I thought I’d write another love letter to a museum. Read last year’s Love Letter To A Little Museum, here.

This year my boo is a hospital museum, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and Archives to be exact. I had applied to volunteer at the museum before I had even moved to London. How did I initially apply you ask? I just slid into their DMs on Twitter asking if I could volunteer, of course 😉 How very Valentine’s. (I will point out, though, that I still had to fill out an application form and receive some NHS volunteer training before I could start!) The fact I starting volunteering at this museum as soon as I moved to London definitely contributes to my love of the place – the archivists and volunteers are some of the first friendly faces I met and the museum is probably one of the first places I felt at home in this vast city. Barts has also allowed me to continue gaining museum experience whilst I complete my MA and gain some archival experience too. Repackaging archival material has been a fantastic and interesting project – despite making my hands drier than a desiccated mummy and spurring a new hatred for staplers and pins. Who the heck pins together documents?!

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The museum’s trusty staple remover. I call it Gnasher.

As much as I personally love the museum, neither the world nor the museum’s worth revolve around me. The role Bart’s hospital museum occupies within the hospital’s campus is both an important and undercelebrated one. Naturally, a large number of people who come to the museum or use the archives are academically interested in the history of Barts and the NHS. I have chatted to PhD students researching various aspects of our society’s relationship with medicine and regularly groups of art students come with their teachers to see our famous Hogarth staircase. GCSE history students have found the museum invaluable to their course. We also get the odd Sherlock Holmes enthusiast.

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However, the museum is also a liminal space. It is both within Barts grounds and outside the wards and waiting rooms; a place to spend time, waste time or eat away some at waiting time. A place to feel like you’re not in a hospital whilst knowing medical aid is available quickly. Quite a lot of our visitors are patients, family of patients or people killing time before appointments. It’s a place to stretch your legs and stimulate your mind. It is also a place where sat at a desk as you enter is a person ready to greet you. An obvious detail, you may think, but it is not as inconsequential as you would think. Maybe I am just being romantic but it is Valentine’s Day, so I am going to unashamedly wax lyrical. As museum volunteer at Barts, I have found myself occupying a role that I haven’t in my previous museum work…That of listener. I don’t know whether it is the aforementioned spatial liminality of the museum or a freedom from the often sanitised and formal nature of medical interactions that brings people to my desk. Maybe it is the fact that I am not in a uniform and the very nature of being front of house means that talking to me about the museum (or life in general) will not distract me from any tasks or work that I have to do. Being available for a natter is my work.

People talk to me about a whole range of things and I listen and ask questions. I never advise and if the guest has a concern, I always suggest that they seek advice from their healthcare professional. I am painfully aware that I am only qualified as a listener but as of yet, that has been more than enough. Often people thank me profusely for talking with them and I always reply sincerely that it is, in fact, my pleasure. I acknowledge that this post would be so much more interesting if I went in to details of the amazing stories that I have been told, the poignant tales, the celebratory moments and the sad ones. But I won’t. It would seem uncouth and a transgression of trust. I am not just a listener but a keeper too and (providing there are no safeguarding issues) what’s said to me, stays with me. It is a moving and privileged position and one that I did not expect when I signed up as a volunteer.

Now, it wouldn’t be a BooksandGuts post if I didn’t get on my soap box and preach the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to medicine and the medical humanities, so I will continue to be #onbrand. If these experiences at Barts Hospital Museum and Archive have taught me anything, it is that there is a need for these liminal spaces within healthcare. They don’t have to be museums*, I am talking about access to green places, libraries, cinemas or film nights, theatres, and so on. I have found in my experience that children’s hospitals are already nailing this – when I look back on my time in Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, my minor op was such a small part of my stay. I painted some pottery and read for a bit, popped in the theatre for an op, recovered and went home. Just because we age and understand the nature of hospital treatment doesn’t mean that a hospital stay is any less traumatic or draining on our mental resources. Should patients identify soley as a passive ‘patient’ or as a person, with interests, preferences and needs, who just so happens to be receiving treatment? There are valid practical reasons to disregard this argument; money is the obvious one as the NHS chronically has too little as well as the fact that hospitals are full of people who are sick and have limited mobility. However, I know through my NHS training that there are volunteers on the ward who can play board games, read to and have a chat to patients. They are a great way resource to ensure patients feel like they are being engaged with on a social level without mounting further pressure onto healthcare professionals.

 

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To conclude:

KATE +BHM&A 4 LYF.

*No, I can’t believe I said that either!

In defence of #AccessibleAcademics

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Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

This post was partly inspired by a discussion of historical fiction that took place in the Q&A section of the Hidden Histories: Gaps and Silences in the Archives, which I have written about, here.

When sitting down to first write this post, I had trouble defining what I actually want to talk about. After thinking hard and consulting Twitter, I think best way of defining the media I want to talk about is this…

Any media which aims to make academic and/or scientific topics accessible to the public aka #AccessibleAcademics. (This becomes complicated when critics argue that they aren’t ‘academic’ enough, but I will cross that bridge later.) I am talking about books, comic books, documentaries, childrens’s shows, twitter feeds, podcasts, public personalities &c..

OK, boring defining bit out the way. Why was I moved to write this? Because more and more regularly, I am seeing the producers or writers of this content be criticized for not being ‘academic’ enough or some how devolving their field into a ‘micky subject.’ This criticism turns caustic and especially volitile when it is directed towards female academics or educators. If I had a pound for every time an educated and qualified female twitterstorian was told she was ‘just a pretty face’ or pedantic because she expects to be addressed as ‘Dr’ as opposed to ‘Miss,’ I could fund a PHD myself (and probably experience the same ire).

This gets to me. Not only because it is both rude and factually inaccurate but because it points to the larger issue in academia of intellectual gatekeeping. I don’t want to believe it, but it seems that a lot the academics who criticise popular science or history do so because they don’t want the masses to have access to academic subjects and not because they are particularly worried about the calibre of such media. Sure, there are crap science and history books/shows out there, which perpetuate myths and falsehoods, but this concern wouldn’t account for why bonafide and qualified personalities are facing such criticism.

This upsets me even more, because I am a first gen university goer battling through her masters and I wouldn’t be at university without my TV. Is every home filled with books? Are all parents university graduates who take their family to the theatre or to galleries? Are all school teachers great at spotting and nurturing a child’s passion for a topic? No. Do most children have access to a TV? Yes.

As a child I watched BBC 4 relentlessly. I loved all things Ancient Egypt (Not going to lie, it was because of The Mummy) and so would watch Zahi Hawass’s documentaries. I bored the bejeezus out of my mother by demanding to watch Time Team so much that she banned it off the TV. I learnt about the history of food from Sue Perkins’s and Giles Coran’s Supersizers go… which I still love and rewatch. My (purely academic) love of syphilis comes from an episode of Historical Cold Cases in which they give a face to a nameless young sex worker who was afflicted with the illness. And I will never forget the day that I first saw Susannah Liscomb’s Hidden Killer’s of the Victorian Home – she was so enthused, so clever, so well educated, had her own show and she was a lady. You have to see it to be it – and in that moment, I saw an opportunity for myself.

Where all these shows suitable for a young person? No, absolutely not if you go by the offcom rating system. I watched science documentaries about obscure illnesses with graphic surgery scenes. I watched documentaries that sensationalised the Ripper murders and gave me nightmares for weeks. That’s why I am so glad that there are now Children’s TV shows like Operation Ouch and Horrible Histories. My younger sister had no interest in my Horrible History books but could she sing every word to “King who brought back partying”? Yeah she could, and near drove us insane with her renditions.

I could (correctly) assert that this media acts as a gateway for some people to pursue interests that would otherwise be off limits. I could wax lyrical about health and science educators fostering science literacy in a ‘fake news’ era. Yet I am aware that even this argument privileges the notion of academics being ‘above’ those who don’t pursue higher education. A person may just like watching Secrets at the Museum or reading Sapiens and that’s that – it is entertainment. Is that not reason enough to support popular and accessible documentaries and books? There is a market for it. People enjoy consuming it. What better reason do you need?

Now we have Twitter, podcasts, lovely friendly educators who love talking to their enthused followers, museums and collections are reaching out hosting fun and free events, popular figures are travelling on book tours and giving speeches. History Fest is happening this week (!!!) offering an amazing line up of fantastic historians on diverse subjects AND offering digital events too for peak accessibility. (I stan).

And if all this irritates some dusty ol’ academics then tough tatties. Accessible academics is in and it is here for the long haul.

This is the first in a series of #accessibleacademics post.

Event Review: Hidden Histories: Gaps and Silences in the Archives.

“How do you construct a historical narrative when you don’t have all the facts? To celebrate the launch of The US-UK Fulbright Commission Archive at the British Library, join historian and author Kate Williams, academics Tony Badger and Caroline Bressey, and British Library cataloguer Eleanor Casson, as they discuss archival research, the politics and practices of using archives and the purpose and value they have for historians, researchers and novelists.” – British Library ‘s Event Page forHidden Histories: Gaps and Silences in the Archives.

The different specialities and research interests of each speaker meant that multiple reasons for ‘silences’ in archives were discussed. For example, Eleanor Casson explained that collections are always socially determined, i.e. follow the collector’s interests and so will only reflect those areas. She also explained that the process of cataloguing and creating an order within an archive can cause gaps. This fact seems obvious but I had never considered it before. Casson explained that archival theory has to question a collection’s value; who created it? why does it exist? Do we have the resources (both money and time) to catalogue this? Eleanor gave a delightful introduction to the life of a cataloguer and spoke with such humour and passion about the subject. She suggested that there needs to be more transparency about the cataloguing process in order for trust to be built between researcher and archivist.

Kate Williams gave a very interesting presentation about the privileging of certain historic voices over others. That it isn’t that 16th- or 17th-century diaries of young maids or courtesans have been lost, it is that they never existed. The lower classes obviously had poorer literacy rates but also, probably didn’t believe their life stories to be worth preserving or worth researching. Even in the 19th century, when the voice of the working class was beginning to be recorded, it was mediated through census takers and upper-class researchers. The second half of Kate Williams talk focused on the archive material surrounding Mary, Queen of Scots and questions the motivations involved in preserving certain material over others. Have certain documents been kept because they portray Mary as especially treacherous? Probably the most enlightening aspect of Kate Williams talk was the idea that just because something survives and we have it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is important. We shouldn’t privilege a letter, or book, or any other artefact merely because it still exists.

Tony Badger spoke about the wonderful work that archivists have done for him over the years; opening late, early or on a holiday in order to help further research. He spoke mainly about the difficulty of archiving the papers of senators; as the previous century progressed, the volume of papers has increased to the point archivists dread the prospect of having to catalogue them. This was yet another point where resources (time, money, space) came up as a limitation of archive work. Badger also spoke about willful silences. In particular, he spoke of the British Government deliberately sequestering evidence of colonial atrocities and denying their existence when those affected brought lawsuits against the government. This reminded the audience of the political nature of archives and was more than a wee bit unsettling.

Finally, Caroline Bressey talked about her research into the history of people of colour in Britain. She spoke of the difficulty of finding information regarding minority populations, especially because census records didn’t record race until very recently. Instead, one must deduce a person’s race from information such as occupation. As a result, Bressey focuses her research on the latter half of the 19th century after the development of photography. Bressey championed digital archives suggesting that such an archive would allow the whole run of periodical Anti-Caste to be accessible to scholars from all backgrounds and yield much needed scholarship on the paper. However, yet again the issue of resources came up. Who has the time and money to do this? There is a digital revolution to be had, but how do we go about funding it?

This event was a great introduction to both the importance and knowledge that can be gained from archives, but also the frustrations at the gaps within them. Whether those gaps be from the organisation of the archive, represent the disinterest of a collector towards a certain topic or worryingly, deliberate. It also became clear that archivists are now faced with coming up with ways to process born-digital material and keep up with our technological advancements, regarding websites, email, messaging etc.

The only question that I was left with after this event was the idea of who exactly should be filling the gaps in the archives, especially those silences which surround the lives of minorities. Kate Williams made the astute comment that we should be actively cataloguing and documenting things now as we go along. However, I wonder how this would be achieved without that aspect of mediation that was so present in the 19th century. What if certain communities don’t aren’t interested in being involved with such endeavours? Would that make our academic interest, although admittedly coming from a good place, exploitative or intrusive? The only answer I can see is that we must empower communities to preserve their own histories, in ways that they see fit and appropriate.  But again, the darn lack of resources seems to be a limitation to that idea as well!

To conclude, this was a great event with a great panel that opened up a much-needed topic for consideration.

Book Review: The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris.

Study breaks in beautiful multistory bookshops are dangerous. After a long study session in Senate House, I wandered into Gower St’s Waterstones and my day was made; a beautiful bookshop with artwork, study spaces and a WHOLE WALL OF MEDICAL HISTORY BOOKS. After an hour I left with a beautiful wee book, one that I had had my eye on for a long time, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities.

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First off, the cover is stunning. A beautiful shade of blue with lovely floating illustrations of the various cases featured in the book and little shards of a tooth. I live in a grungy student maisonette with no communal area but I wish I had a little coffee table to place this book on. It would bring to delight to all that peruse it.

My copy has a little advertisement on the front saying ‘Horrible Histories for Adults’ and I can see the comparison. The book features weird and unusual medical cases of the gross, mischievous and saucy. I will never look an egg cup in the same way again. Morris proves that history can be funny and that people never change. What’s lovely too, is the way Morris contains tales of misadventure without ever making fun of those featured, which could be easily done and would cheapen the humour. The book kind of seems like a celebration and acknowledgement of our enduring habit of being A* muppets. I don’t necessarily believe this book is purely for adults though; the book would be a great introduction to the history of medicine and also print history for a mature history-minded child.

The book isn’t just a collection of tales of ailment by misadventure. Some of the cases are touching, mildly terrifying or a poignant reflection on the mental and physical conditions that have plagued us for centuries. You will also thank your lucky stars that you’re are alive now! The medical treatments of the past are not for the faint of heart.

Another thing I like about this book is its breadth. The cases are from multiple countries giving a broader overview of the history of medicine than if it was just anglocentric. But my absolute favourite thing about this book is the fact it contains sections of the print journals and articles from which the cases are taken. As somebody who is interested in the medical humanities and studying book history, I loved seeing little snapshots of the print media. It was lovely to have print, archival work and archives feature within the book.

This book is an enjoyable, easy read. I devoured it all in one go, but the book is also dip-in-able. A perfect coffee table book to surreptitiously make your guests fall in love with the history of medicine and ‘make you grateful for modern medicine.’

Follow Thomas Morris on Twitter at @thomasgmorris . Check out his blog at www.thomas-morris.uk.

Book Review: The Ravenmaster

The nights are drawing in in London. When I moved here in September, the days were still summer-like, sunny and lingering. But now it is dark when I get up to commute into town and it is dark when I come home. It is blustery, the leaves are dropping off the trees and London’s historic nature seems to tint the banality of the rat race with a hue of mystery. This is the season The Ravenmaster was written for. It is the perfect book to come home to. Shake off your brolly, put on a warm knit, make a brew, light a candle and let Skaife’s storytelling envelop you into the world of the Tower of London.

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife offers a window into the inner workings of one of England’s best loved historic attractions, the Tower of London. He tells us about the high standards, the routine, the diligence and care that goes into ensuring every guest has a magical experience.

But most of all, Christopher Skaife tells us about the ravens…

Out of all the birds, the raven that has captured our imagination like no other. They are present in our myths and legends and in some of our scariest stories. Intelligent. Regal. Fickle. Beautiful. More than a little deadly. Christopher Skaife, current Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, introduces us to the Tower’s ravens, past and present. Make no mistake, they are BIG personalities. As you read about each raven and their idiosyncrasies, prepare yourself for the inevitable desire to want to meet the ravens, to be accepted by them, to form a bond with them…Whilst also recognising why that A) Is highly unlikely and B) might be the worst idea you have ever had. Just because you may love a raven, doesn’t mean that raven may take kindly to you. (Well, that’s unfair, they may take a fancy to one of your fingers.) This book will make you simultaneously crave raven companionship and recognise that they are beautifully dangerous birds that defy ownership, even by the Tower!

As much as I loved reading about the Ravens, I would argue that the real star of the book (although I doubt he would see himself as such!) is Skaife himself. My favourite thing about this book is that Skaife isn’t just a great storyteller and an interesting character in his own right, but he also seems like a down-to-earth, stand up guy. His personality emanates through his narrative and his own life story is fascinating. I think he should be considered a national treasure. His love for the birds shines throughout The Ravenmaster. His tenderness for them is something truly special. He loves them even when they are being mischievous little buggers. In fact, I think he finds their sandwich stealing habit just a tad bit amusing. I use this term inaccurately and romantically, but Skaife is their sentinel; watching out for them, risking life and limb for them, passionately advocating for their welfare and mourning their passing like they are family. Skaife’s storytelling is wonderful too. He is hilarious but also modest. He asserts multiple times that he is ‘no expert’ but he weaves in bird facts and literary references in his narrative with skill. One of his most impressive feats is his ability to describe the science of ravens without detracting from their folkloric and mysterious appeal. In Skaife’s writing, the two inform each other.

Why you should read this book…

When I am squished on the Tube, tired and a bit fed up of modern London’s industrial and faceless grind, I think about the Tower, about the Ravenmaster and the ravens. It brings a smile to my face to think that amongst the corporate sprawl there is still a vestige of myth and magic. The Ravenmaster is an antidote to the weariness of modern life.

September: Museums of the Month

I am back from a long hiatus due to ill health and unplanned hospital visits, but I thought what better way to dip my toe back into the blogosphere than to start a new feature. Welcome to Museums of the Month! 

Grant Museum of Zoology  

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This museum has been on my radar since I was bought a ‘Weird Museum’ guidebook as a birthday present. I was meeting a friend from St Andrews who did her undergraduate degree in Zoology and thought this would be the perfect place to take her. I am slowly earning the reputation of ‘Museum Matcher.’ Got an obscure hobby or passion? Kate will find you a museum dedicated to it!

The Grant Museum of Zoology seemed to be half Zoology Museum half witch’s pantry, with a blend of bisected heads, skeletons, taxidermy and jars full of animals. It was great having a Zoologist friend with me, as she was so excited to see the specimens and gave detailed and enthusiastic descriptions of her favourites. However, the museum itself had great volunteers who really knew their stuff and were really friendly. My pretty basic question about the lifespan of bats led to a lovely discussion about one of my favourite animals.

The museum currently has an art installation called Agonism/Antagonism by Neus Torres Tamarit which explores the ‘genetic tug of war between the sexes.’ As well as being beautiful, the art was produced during an artist residency in the UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment. As someone who loves interdisciplinary approaches to science, I found this relationship between science and art really exciting.

Highlights:

  • The Jar of Moles – What more can I say? The jar of moles is apparently one of the most popular specimens and it certainly won me over. It is equal parts odd and adorable.
  • The African Rock Python –Seeing this specimen took our breath away. It’s huge! The snake previously lived in the London Zoo and was donated to the museum after its death in the 60s’. The snake was so long that the specimen was prepared on the roof of the Medawar Building at UCL!
  • The Micrarium – This was possibly the best thing in the museum. So many museums focus on large specimens but this little cabinet featured microscopic slides. It was amazing to see the tiny specimens arranged in a really engaging way. I would love to see something similar in a pathology museum.

Wellcome Collection

 

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I have been wanting to visit the Wellcome Collection for years so I had to make it one of my first trips. I visited the Grant Museum and the Wellcome Collection on the same day and so it was my turn to be the tour guide and excitable enthusiast for my Zoologist friend. The Wellcome was getting ready for its new exhibition Living With Buildings, so I will have to pop back this month to see it.

One of my favourite things about the Wellcome is the way it looks at seemingly objective topics, such as medicine and wellness, and frames them within a wider cultural understanding. If our bodies exist in a society, then our understanding of and feelings towards those bodies will be reflective of that society. Seeing exhibits and sections of the Collection that played with that idea was amazing. The area on obesity was particularly interesting. I found the huge bookcase full of diet books especially profound. It made me think of the diet industry, which profits off people’s unhappiness with their bodies and it also made me question what is more common; a person changing their dietary habits in order to become healthier or a person determined to lose weight because they are unhappy with how they look?  If fad diets and diet books make money, then it follows that those within that industry profit off the cyclical nature of yo-yo dieting. To me, that bookcase seemed to be dedicated to that exploitation and the dangerous conflation of thinness and health.

Highlights:

  • The Vanitas – A vanitas is a piece of art meant to illustrate the transient nature of life and beauty and remind the viewer that vain (here meaning ‘worthlessness’) pleasures are a waste of your limited time. The style of vanitas at the Wellcome, a face split between life and death, is one of my favourite styles of Memento Mori art. I particularly loved the small details on this vanitas, especially the spindly spider on the skull.
  • The Prosthetic Nose – Syphilis is one of my favourite illnesses of all time and I have
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    ‘Artificial nose, Europe, 1601-1800’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY

    read about prosthetic or ‘false’ noses being used as a means to hide the damage of tertiary syphilis.  It was exciting to finally see one. A nose prosthetic was used purely for aesthetic purposes, which I find to be very interesting. The act of wearing a false nose clearly shows others that you have damage to your actual nose, so in terms of hiding your illness, it isn’t really effective. So is a false nose more for the beholder? And what does that mean regarding venereal disease, visible illnesses and shame?

Not Quite A Museum of the Month…

Highgate Cemetery

20180916_143332888784141.jpgThe first historical place I visited when I moved to London was Highgate Cemetery. This is another place that I have been reading about for years, so it was so great to be able to finally visit.

Highgate Cemetery is a curious mix of styles, from modern graves (like that of Paul Caulfield or Douglas Adams) to dilapidated, broken Victorian graves and statues. It was great to see the personalities of the residents shine through in the gravestones which were often custom built.

I heard about Highgate Cemetery as a child. I can’t quite remember how I came across it, but I remember hearing about the “Highgate Vampire” and was both spooked and intrigued. But visiting as an adult, I found the place strikingly peaceful. I was particularly taken by the older graves which looked like they were being absorbed by the surrounding plants and trees. I live not too far away from the cemetery so I feel like I will be visiting again and again – I am interested in how Highgate Cemetery looks as the seasons change.

 

#NHS70

food-sweet-cake-candles-6203.jpgHappy Birthday, NHS.

Thank you for being there for us in the darkest of times; accident, injury, illness and death. For also sharing in the best of times; the all clears, the births, the recovery.

Thank you for the buttery toast you gave to a little girl whose world had just crashed down her ears.

Thank you for the banter of the paramedics who made the worst 18th birthday a girl could wish for a little bit more bearable.

Thanks for the physio and for the physiotherapists who were just too darn nice for me to hate. Physio was the worst.

Thank you for the words of encouragement. The support I needed to get back on my feet (literally and emotionally). The counselling. The firm talking tos. The discretion.

You’re not perfect and we’re partially to blame. We should reflect on how use you respectfully and fairly. To not litter your A&Es with drunkards on a Saturday night. To take ownership of our lifestyle choices. To not take what we don’t need. To not bite the hand that feeds us.

But thank you, for your tirelessness, your devotion and your dedication.

We are all very grateful.

Curating: Thoughts from The Learning Curve.

Recently, I had the opportunity to act in a curating role for an exhibition. The exhibit was lottery funded and commissioned by a local theatre. The exhibition, While I Breathe, I hope, focuses on the St Andrews community during the First World War.

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Due to having a very small team of two volunteers, I was able to have hands-on experience at every step of the process, from conception to the installation. At first, I was nervous about the weight of the task – to honour the sacrifice and courage of St Andreans, both on the home front and in foreign fields, is no mean feat. The experience was definitely a learning curve but I feel like I learnt so much more through this hands-on learn-on-the-job experience than I would have from a book or lecture.

Here are three lessons that I learnt along the way…

1. Don’t think you have to squeeze every single nugget of information into your exhibit.

Trust me. You’re going to find out so many amazing stories and facts relating to your topic and you will want to include every single one of them – but you can’t. If you did your exhibition would be too large and lack focus. We started with the idea to include information and stories not just from the war, but also examples of the make-do-and-mend attitude from which inspired the theatres opening in the interwar years. As well as that, we were also going to focus on showcasing the community spirit which has continued to grow around the theatre – people have met their spouses there, the theatre has always worked to include local schools and children in their productions. As you can see – this was just way too much content to produce in the few weeks we had to put the exhibition together. Once we had streamlined our brief, we were able to concentrate on a few stories that really spoke to the town’s motto “While I Breathe, I Hope.”

2. Be warned, you are going to get very attached to the people you research.

It was an absolute privilege to learn about and honour the memory of St Andreans involved in the war effort – both on the fields and the home front. There were tales of hope, love and plenty of examples of the cheeky and ballsy Scottish spirit that I have come to love over the past few years I have lived here. Jock Ripley, a veteran, pretended to be younger than he was so that he could go to the front and fight. When asked about his actions, he argued that his “pen must have slipped.” He survived being shot in the head – being awarded the VC for continuing to support his fellow soldiers despite his injury and the odds of their survival. His courage and cheek made me laugh, Ripley was a real rogue one, a man with principals who knew he could help and had no qualms about bending the rules to recruit himself back into active duty.

But there were also tales of tragedy. I remember losing my temper when transcribing a letter from the front informing of a local teen’s death. The language of the letter was beautiful – if there is any comfort at all to be had at this moment, it will come from the knowledge that your brother lies amongst some of the bravest men who have ever fought for King and country – but the soldier’s name was spelt wrong multiple times. I had read so much about this young man and his brother (one came home, one didn’t), poured over pictures of him, seen his “dead man’s penny” and the local newspapers report of his death. The carelessness of the letter felt like a gross indignity. I was raging. Then I realised how many letters like this must have been written, how much of a toll it would have taken on those who spent hours writing “I regret to inform you…” over and over again. Each letter signifying another life lost in a bitter and brutal war. By learning and relating to one man from a small coastal town – I was able to grasp (or rather realise that I could never grasp) the enormous scale of lost lives, lost hopes, lost loves. It was humbling, profound and harrowing all at the same time and I am so grateful for the experience. This is why museums are so important- they encourage powerful moments of connection between the present and past, they transcend personal experiences and tap into the shared human condition. They are a thousand times more effective than a textbook.

3. Plan all you want, the installation is going to throw a few spanners in the works.

First of all, Publisher is a cruel, cruel mistress. I am sure there are better programmes to use to produce posterboards, but it was all we had to hand. Don’t get me wrong – it worked and the posterboards look clean and neat, but my god did formatting them (and reformatting them…and reformatting them) lead to sleepless nights. Before finalising the content of the exhibition, we visited the space again and drew 2D plans on where we wanted everything. It was a logistical task and we still needed to arrange printing and transport for a glass case but we thought we’d sorted everything…
Except that we’d assumed the theatre would be coming up with means of actually hanging our posterboards but that wasn’t the case. They told us that they have a wire to hang from the ceiling and that all we needed was to attach hooks to the boards. Our boards were foam though and flat, there was no way we could drill picture hooks into them. Our curator came up with the ingenious idea of attaching velcro to the walls and the posterboards and so that hiccup was solved. However well you plan your layout, the practicalities of the installation process will cause you to tweak things like where things are placed, sometimes very last minute. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is just a difference between seeing a layout in theory and seeing the reality of that space when it is occupied.

A bonus lesson…

I learned most of all that I love heritage and museums, that whatever I end up doing, I want to in some way be a preserver and communicator of history. This exhibition was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life!

Book Review: Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies

It has been a long time since I have fallen for a book as hard as I have fallen for Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies. The blend of art history, medical history and history of religion and empire gives a depth to the work, which I have rarely seen in a book smaller than a hefty and inaccessible tome. The book’s scope ties together the forces within a medieval person’s life which would have impacted the way they understood their body, how their bodies interacted with the world and also the bodies of others, be that friend, foreigner or foe. In this way, the text presents a much more well rounded and three dimensional discussion on medieval bodies than a book purely focused on medicine, or art, or religion.

A book like this could easily become overwhelming and muddled, but the structure of Medieval Bodies maintains a clarity over the whole text. Each section focuses on one aspect of the body or bodily experience. This allows Hartnell to explore the significance of each body part in great depth, without having to sacrifice any content for the sake of a specific or restricting sustained narrative. This layout is also unbelievably valuable for people like me, who often write on medieval understandings of the body (and specifically on how the intersections between medieval understandings of religion and medicine clash with post-reformation doctrine) and a text divided by body part would have been an amazing starting point for so many of my projects and essays. This is a book that I am definitely going to use time and time again within my academic career and in my blog.

Medieval Bodies was bought for me by a friend as I struggled with my last undergraduate exams and I managed to have the willpower not to touch it until I had finished. The book doesn’t just detail historical curatives, my tired eyes found it to be a curative itself. Resurrecting my love for learning and reading after it had been bludgeoned by the exam diet – the book is stunning, exquisite even, and not just the cover. One of my pet hates is when a book sticks all its photographs and illustrations in an index at the back. Medieval Bodies is chock full of beautiful images of relics, medical texts and art, which have all been arranged on the page in a way which compliments the text around it. This means that the reader will never be taken out of the reading experience by having to flick back and forth to locate images. It is always a great moment when a book about art can marry its own artistry with an accessible reader’s experience. Medieval bodies is a work of art in its own right.

The issue that cropped up with this book for me is that the dust jacket has become worn very quickly. This is partly (if not wholly) my fault, though. As I said, I fell for this book hard and fast and I have taken it everywhere with me – to work, to the park, in my weekend bag. I haven’t loved it gently. That being said, I do wish the cover had a plastic or laminate or at least a more sturdy cover. As much as I am fascinated by material book culture and the analogous relationship between books and bodies, it makes me sad that the beautiful cover of my book has become tarnished and scuffed.

To sum up, this book strikes a balance between being a work of art and providing a detailed and nuanced discussion of medieval bodies that is so far unsurpassable by any other book that I have read, both in my studies and spare time. I know that this is a book that I will come back to again and again, whether that be to inform my academic writing or to rejuvenate my love of learning and soothe my reading tired eyes.

Event/Book Review: All That Remains by Sue Black

Is this a book review, an event review or review of the author? I am not sure. There is no way this could be impartial as I have followed Sue Black’s work since I was in high school and I admire her greatly. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Sue Black talk about her first non-academic book All That Remains and she did not disappoint.

Let’s begin with the book. All That Remains is beautifully presented. The cover is understated and elegant; a lone skeleton on a cream background and each chapter is demarcated by a relevant image or illustration and quote. The beauty of the book took me by surprise – you should never judge a book by its cover but the look of All That Remains is as fantastic as its content. The book is a poignant blend of science, memoir and unintentional motivational life guide. Having penned textbooks, Black excels in her elegant descriptions of the body’s systems, which highlight the beauty and complexity of our bodies whilst still allowing the layperson to digest it. As a humanities student with no link to medical science, I felt like Black was divulging secret information that I shouldn’t be privy to – quatsch of course, but a fun thought none the less. Isotope analysis fascinated me when I was younger and saw it discussed on archaeological shows and Black’s own History Cold Case, it was amazing to hear of how this process worked and hear mind-blowing facts about how our bodies are maps of where we (and even our parents) have been. It made me laugh to think that, in an age in which we are so paranoid about CCTV and smart trackers, our own bodies will reveal our secrets to anyone with the knowledge to ask the right questions. Black reveals our bodies to us with expertise, humour and a skill for teaching complex ideas.

It’s no surprise that Black explains well as she is, amongst many other things, an educator. What you wouldn’t expect, necessarily, is the wit and poignancy with which she writes; from her descriptions of her first dissection to her ruminations on human frailty, identity and family. I didn’t expect All That Remains to have such poignancy, but one thing that really struck me was Black’s focus on the interconnectivity of not only humanity, but our actual bodies. I think because of our individualistic culture, we acknowledge that our bodies follow roughly the same spec; they share limbs, blood types and so on but focus on the divisiveness that our differences in strength cause. We ignore the commonality of our frailties or the fact that the location of our pregnant mothers can be traced through our skulls. Our bodies are a testament to the places we come from, the places we are, and will map where we will go. From our hair to our bones, we exist within a context and I find that comforting.

Now for the woman herself…

I hate the phrase down to earth. When people say it I always have the mental image of someone’s face being smushed into mud. That being said, Sue Black is amazingly gracious and relatable for someone who has done such good in the world. She held the attention of the room effortlessly, not through any artificial showmanship but by being a genuine and interesting person. Her talk wasn’t rote either – when a man coughed whilst she described her grandmother’s lung cancer, she zeroed in on him like a hawk, laughing at the misfortunate timing of his coughing fit. There were two things that I especially appreciated about Sue Black’s talk and by extension her book; that was her focus on family and her delight in the folktales that she grew up with. In her book and within her talk, she spoke about the importance of family and folktales or the spooky ways our grandmas claim to have a sixth sense. She told us to write our loved one’s stories down, not out of vanity but out of ‘family’; our children and children’s children will want to know from whom they came from. I loved this, as a girl who grew up in a family of Irish descent, I grew up with ghosts and have always found the conflict between faith and science uncomfortable. I asked Black about this in the Q&A, ‘Science and faith/the folk are presented as the antithesis of each other, how do you balance the two?’

‘Balance’ She said, ‘Is exactly the right word.’

Black’s book gave me an insight into the body, to the important work Black has done, to the poignant frailty of life. Black herself gave me a friendly memento mori, a reminder to laugh and love my family and a desire to head to Paperchase to buy a notebook in which to chronicle my family’s mad, mundane but equally wondrous tales.