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In a global health crisis, science museums have a lot to offer – even while shut

20 May 2020

Once just the voice of authority, increasingly medical museums see themselves as empowering their audiences (or ‘users’). And rarely has that been needed more. The experience of Covid-19 is turning citizens into participants in a medical drama that has not yet been scripted. Though global, as it unfolds, and in years to come, the interpreting and storytelling of such a great event will be rooted in personal experience.

The museum doors are firmly shut. Yet this is also an opportunity for great institutions to enrich our personal stories. Thanks to a quarter of a century of digitisation and enthusiastic experimentation, not to mention the improvements of the internet, museums are allowing online visitors to wander through collections, past exhibitions and virtual displays. Though nothing like being in the presence of the original the online experience has pluses as well as minuses. We can enjoy integrated stories drawing on images of objects that might never be physically adjacent, or from different institutions or even different countries.

As yet, there are very few online Covid-19 exhibits, tracking the progress of the pandemic. The German Medical Museum (‘Covid 19 & history’) offers a rare exception but, just as policymakers assemble policy and prospects from what has gone before, so museum ‘visitors’ can find much rich resource in what has been assembled already. Exhibitions on medicine deal with such chronic issues as blame, responsibility, laboratory shortages and national leadership. At the beginning of the 20th century Mary Mallon, ‘Typhoid Mary’, was cast as a superspreader. President Franklin Roosevelt was a sufferer from the polio epidemic a century before Boris Johnson fell ill with Covid-19. The Iron Lung, a tank ventilator, stimulated polio patients’ lungs for decades.

A health worker’s protective clothing, on view in the Science Museum’s medicine galleries.

A health worker’s protective clothing, on view in the Science Museum’s medicine galleries. Photo: © Science Museum Group

Virtual visitors can pick and choose not just from Britain but from the whole world. Why not try exhibits on the 1918 flu epidemic from the National Museum of Health and Medicine near Washington, D.C., on smallpox from the Dittrick Museum in Cleveland, or on epidemics from the Science Museum in London? Beyond such individual museum projects there are a variety of vast online platforms that integrate content from different sources. Europeana, Google Arts and Culture and Inventing Europe all allow the user to invent new personal ways of synthesising resources. We might think of these sites as the first stumbling steps in the development of a new art form. The Inventing Europe site, for instance, integrates an expert-written story with photographs of related objects taken from a variety of European museums. There are views of the history of penicillin from the perspective of Poland and of tuberculosis from the Netherlands.

Here in the UK, it is twenty years since Chris Smith, then Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, announced ‘Culture Online’, a massive internet initiative that would enable the public to access British culture from their living rooms and schools. The projects spurred on by the lottery-funded sequels to this initiative were designed early in the 21st century in a different technical era, and those sites have generally closed, but we are still benefiting from the content they generated, albeit 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 that has been archived too, the content is being transitioned and expanded in the Science Museum’s website.

Museums as physical sites, homes to 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 on himself to preserve the emblems of engineering change, rescuing Stephenson’s Rocket (celebrated as the first modern steam locomotive) and numerous other markers of invention. His work laid the ground for the Science Museum. After the First World War, Britain opened the Imperial War Museum. A century on, that institution is a principal source for learning about the national experience of wartime.

Now museums of many stripes are collecting avidly to preserve the memory of the pandemic. Projects by the Science Museum Group and the Victoria and Albert Museum among others have already been announced. These collections – of testing kits, medical equipment, official guidance, public expressions of solidarity – will permit museums around the world not just create the authoritative record of the event, but also help visitors, hopefully in person, to reinterpret the experience. Medicine and indeed science are too important as parts of our physical and imaginative lives to be the reserve of doctors. Museums have the challenge of finding means of making sense both of the virus and the experience, for ourselves and for generations to come.

Robert Bud is Emeritus Keeper of the Science Museum, London.