Starting a placement at a Medical Museum – when I have neither a background in museum work or much experience with medical history – was a daunting prospect. But coming from a background in literature, and now studying an interdisciplinary master’s degree, my interest in the work the cultural sector does had been growing over a number of years, and the ability to work in a small museum on a project that enabled me to experience a wide range of different aspects of museum work was hugely attractive. Deciding to take the plunge, I chose to do my placement with the Museum of Medicine and Health.
The Museum, which is a stored collection and part of the University’s heritage department, has a fascinating history. From very unusual beginnings as part of the medical school and curated by the wife of the dean, Charlotte Beswick, it has grown to nearly 6000 objects. However, the current cataloging system used by the Museum was no longer fit for purpose. This is where my Placement came in.
My placement had two main aspects. Firstly, to improve this documentation by helping to photograph, assess, and record objects for the purpose of uploading database information to the program EMu (Electronic Museums). Secondly, to improve the awareness and engagement the collection has with the wider public. Working through many of the objects in storage, we worked with the Photographics department in the Stopford Building of the medical school to take high-resolution images of the objects. While photographing them, we compared the existing information on the objects to our own analysis, making corrections when necessary. For example, identifying when objects had been moved, misplaced, or damaged. This work allowed the information we were uploading to EMu to be more accurate and precise.
The objects in the collection are hugely varied – from objects from hospitals around Manchester such as the Ancoats Dispensary, to Neurological implements donated from the medical school, to examples of medical pseudoscience such as Eye-massagers and Violet Ray Machines. Using the Twitter account of the Museum we highlighted some of the objects that we came across during this work to highlight some of the items housed in the collection that would not otherwise be seen.
With such a small organisation, the difficulties we faced were significant. The Museum lacks the funding to purchase expensive storage facilities, and the staff to maintain comprehensive and consistent records. But with these challenges came the opportunity to learn. Understanding how the Museum strives towards best practice in the face of difficulty meant that the placement was far more rewarding than I first thought: seeing firsthand the challenges of preserving objects, managing cataloging and storage, and making difficult decisions about accessioning objects has vastly improved my understanding of the challenges that face Museums I hope to take on to future work in the sector.
Some students may worry that a smaller setting for their placement will mean fewer opportunities, but with an increasing emphasis on cooperation between institutions, and also the unique challenges that face smaller institutions, there is more room for an individual to make a big impact and not be lost in the structure of a larger organisation. Being able to engage with the objects within the collection, the management of collection’s databases, and the content and engagement work the Museum engages in meant that each day held new challenges, and new opportunities to grow and develop.
David Brierley is an MA student in Medieval and Early Modern Studies.