People's History of the NHS

  • 12
  • OCT

Students Curate NHS Objects

by Jenny Crane

Today, students from the Cultural History of the NHS module, a third year module at the University of Warwick, helped us (Jane and Jenny) curate a gallery in our Virtual Museum of the NHS.  We asked the students to think of an object or ‘thing’ which represented the NHS to them.  This is a really tricky task, but forces reflection about the spaces where the NHS is represented and manifested.  Some used google, others had a muse, but all students came up with really great ideas and suggestions.  We’ve placed these (relatively) neatly in to two key categories: waiting rooms and everyday politics.

In the first gallery, on waiting, students put objects such as the NHS chair, magazines, and 111 notices.  Whilst students discussed this in a modern context, concerns about waiting have dated from the inception of the NHS, with cartoons and politicians alike expressing anxieties about queues, waiting times, and overuse.  This is a really interesting topic, also being explored as a cultural and psychosocial topic by an interdisciplinary team at Birkbeck, University of London and University of Exeter.

In the second gallery, ‘Everyday Politics of the NHS’, students emphasised the variety of objects that had everyday utility in the NHS, but yet are rarely considered or analysed by historians.  These included hand sanitiser, lanyard, and the bed divider curtain.  Along these objects we placed images of Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, and workers’ strikes, to raise questions about how the political actions of these figures are shaped by, and reflect, the everyday working cultures of the hospital.

It was really useful for us to have these discussions with the students (thanks guys!)  Throughout the session, the students raised interesting themes about the meaning and significance of privacy, nationalism, and expense in the NHS.  We also had a lively discussion about public history, and we were excited to see the students’ passion for the power of individual narratives in history, and their focus on the importance of accessing histories from forgotten voices.  Thinking about this very website, we also talked about the affect of the internet on how healthcare and health institutions operate, and how we interact with them, as well as the power or limitations of the internet as a tool of public history.

We think that this has been a really useful and interesting test in research-led teaching – giving us lots of new ideas and promoting critical but enthusiastic engagement with public history.  If anyone would like to discuss research-led teaching, engagement, internet-led history, or anything vaguely NHS-y, do feel free to contact Jane and Jenny at  Thanks!

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