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?!
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.
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.
KATE +BHM&A 4 LYF.
*No, I can’t believe I said that either!