Scott Miller is a PhD student at the University of South Florida. His area of concentration is 20th Century American history with a focus on the Cold War.
Public Health Meets Public History
While all museums have been impacted by COVID-19, for some its hit especially close to home. Across the country, health museums have had to wrestle with the same issues as other similar institutions— how to stage engaged with the public, layoffs and furloughs, etc. But they also feel an additional responsibility to educate their communities about this health crisis.
In Houston, The John R. McGovern Museum of Health & Medical Science, better known as The Heath Museum, has attracted over 2.5 million visitors. Just last fall, the Smithsonian Institution exhibit Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World opened at the museum. The exhibit reveals how infectious diseases emerge, how they spread so quickly and what scientists are doing to fight them. A review described entering the exhibit— “A mockup of a real-life pandemic response—complete with HAZMAT equipment and staging—will serve as the dramatic entrance to the very real world of life-threatening potential outbreaks.” Since closing on March 17, the Health Museum has been very engaged in the fight against COVID-19. Staff members have appeared on local television to discuss the virus and its webpage contains an impressive list of links to useful resources, everything from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the US Chamber: Resources to Assist Small Businesses. Both its Twitter and Facebook accounts have been very active, posting videos and articles on such topics as how to fight the social distancing blues to advice for caregivers treating COVID-19 patients. And just last week the museum hosted a four day blood drive and donated 3,000 face masks and 3,000 hand gloves from its DeBakey Cell Lab to a local hospital.
The National Museum of Health and Medicine (Silver Springs, Maryland) aims “to preserve, inspire, and inform the history, research, and advancement of military and civilian medicine through world-class collections, digital technology, and public engagement.” While the museum is currently closed, visitors to their website can tour several virtual exhibits, including Closing In On A Killer: Scientists Unlock Clues To The Spanish Influenza Virus. The exhibit gives the history of the 1918 epidemic and the work of Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger to recreate the genetic structure of the virus in the 1990s.
According to its website, the Public Health Museum (Tewksbury, Massachusetts) “strives to preserve artifacts and records of our nation’s history in public health and serve as a resource to the community to educate and promote public health initiatives that address current health issues.” Among its current exhibits is an Infectious Diseases display that teaches how medical experts attacked previous infectious diseases and the impact of their work has on us today. The museum was forced to close on March 13, but has remained active on social media, posting several COVID-19 related articles and links to videos about hand washing and social distancing.
COVID-19 has driven these museums to shut their doors, but they still have found creative and important ways to serve their communities.