Capturing the History of NHS at 70: The Royal College of Physicians & ‘The Museum of Modern Medicine’

In this 70th anniversary week of Britain’s National Health Service, we are delighted to share a guest blog from Curator Kristin Hussey of the Royal College of Physicians (which is also celebrating a significant birthday this year: the big 5-0-0!). Happy Birthday, NHS!

The museum of modern medicine

What would a museum of British medicine since the foundation of the NHS look like? What objects would it include? What stories would it tell?

In light of this year’s NHS70 anniversary, the Museum, Archive and Library of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has been rethinking how we collect and display the history of modern medicine. As Curator, it’s my responsibility to help shape and grow our collection of art and objects so it reflects the ever-changing history of doctors in England and Wales. 2018 is also a big anniversary for the RCP as we mark 500 years since we were established by King Henry VIII in 1518. Since our foundation, the College has been collecting artefacts and archives which trace the history of the organisation, of its membership and of physicianship. Our collections of the early modern period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are particularly rich – helping us to understand more about the wealth, power and ceremony of the early College as well as the development of anatomy. However, as you approach the end of the Victorian era, the museum collection grinds to a standstill.

This lack of collecting beyond the First World War is something I have noticed in many medical museums. Why is it so hard for us to imagine a history of medicine beyond the guts, gore and pain of the nineteenth century operating theatre?  Personally I think there’s an aura of the past about famous doctors and surgeons like Joseph Lister, Edward Jenner, John Snow or William Osler that somehow makes them seem more important. Maybe it’s because the gruesome, outdated and strange tools and remedies of the era seem stranger to us than the stuff of ‘modern medicine’ – the everyday things you can find in a GP surgery or a hospital.

I believe that it is actually this everyday stuff of medicine in the last 100 years that we should be collecting. Museums may seem to be about the past, but they are really about the future. What are the stories and objects people will want to see in exhibitions in 25 years, 50 years or 100 years? What will people think of medicine in 1948 or indeed 2018 when they enter into the realm of ‘history’?  Anniversaries like NHS70 remind us that the mid-20th century is a crucial point in the history of medicine and now is the time to be capturing those objects and stories. With that in mind, the Royal College of Physicians would like to collect and display objects related to the foundation of the NHS and its early years.

Medicine between about 1940 and 1990 represents a period of monumental change. Antibiotics and organ donation, genetic testing and the emergence of HIV/AIDS – displaying the many innovations of the 20th century presents an enormous challenge. As a curator though you aren’t just looking to capture moments of discovery (although that’s important), you are looking for objects that tell a personal story. Sometime which has inspired me about the People’s History of the NHS project is the emphasis they place on the individual experiences of patients. When a visitor comes to a museum, they want to understand what people thought and felt in the past. Whether it’s a doctor or a patient, understanding what a particular artefact meant to someone – how they used it, what it reminds them of, why they kept it. These details can helps us to interpret these items meaningfully for the visitor.

One of the greatest challenges I have found in collecting objects from the 20th century is that people often think their items aren’t important enough to go in a museum. Yet it is often these everyday objects which have the most fascinating stories. Any object can be history if it captures a person’s thoughts or feelings at a particular moment in history. Part of the interesting thing about the RCP Museum is we are interesting in the experiences of both patients and doctors – but ideally stories which bring both together, which help us to understand how patients and doctors have interacted in the past. Two items from our collection illustrate the kinds of artefacts we’d like to collect and display from the NHS era: an early telegram from a doctor desperately seeking insulin to save the life of  young diabetic patient, and this 1994 oesophageal stent, donated by our president-elect Andrew ‘Bod’ Goddard. Stents like these are used in the treatment of cancer, helping to ensure that tumours don’t block the food pipe. Originally invented in the 1880s, this type of plastic model was introduced in the 1970s. However, the plastic stents were difficult to place – something which Dr Goddard dreaded as a trainee doctor. More recently, much more flexible expanding metal stents have been introduced, making these uncomfortable versions a thing of the past. As Bod says, ‘As they are for my patients, oesophageal stents are close to the heart’.

 

If you are interesting in donating something to the Royal College of Physicians related to the NHS, please email history@rcplondon.ac.uk   But first, let me tell you a bit more about what we can and cannot collect, and how you can contribute your objects to our collections!

Note from the editors: Remember, the People’s History of the NHS ‘Virtual Museum of the NHS’ is also collecting. We would be thrilled to collect images of all your NHS objects, big or small — and to hear, save, and share all your stories about them.

 

And if you can’t wait to see more objects, don’t forget to watch this wonderful series on BBC 4, Monday night at 9:00 and available on iPlayer! Objects and stories contributed by members like you tell the human story of the NHS from 1948 until today.

Science Museum Workshop, London

As the excitement builds towards celebrating 70 years of the NHS, a hive of activity is emerging to highlight the importance of this national institution. Visibility has become a key watchword in such activities – media representations in documentaries, news and radio pieces, theatre productions and exhibitions, to mention but a few, are each determined to explore and represent what the NHS means to the British public.

The Science Museum in London has taken up this mantle with no less gusto, with a section of its new Medical Galleries to include a display relating to the history of the NHS. Though not focused on an opening for the anniversary per se, this project opens up important questions regarding how we represent the NHS visually, and it was with this in mind that I was invited to run a standalone 2-hour artist workshop with their steering committee. This, however, is no ordinary steering committee. Composed of group leaders and representatives for the public groups that the Science Museum is working closely with in order to produce the NHS display, including Homerton University Hospital, Adelaide Medical Centre, Watling Medical Centre and A.S.A Disability, the aim for the Museum is that public participation should be a key driver in producing the final NHS display. Short films have been proposed that will be produced by collaboration with these groups, through their stories, memories and ideas of what the NHS means and has meant, with examples of how this might be presented visually. But as any ad execs worth their salt would undoubtedly point out, user-generated content may be the gold dust of today’s media and creative economy, but it is equally difficult to negotiate and produce. This task is made even more tricky when the subject under discussion is suffused with ideas that depend on so many intangibles.But this task is made even more tricky when the subject under discussion – the NHS – is suffused with ideas that depend on so many intangibles. Compassion, inclusion, pride, levelling and security are just some of the values that we associate with the NHS that appear to prove more difficult to represent visually. As one participant put it: ‘you have your work cut out for you’.

However, working from the material generated by participant interviews, and from photos that the participants were asked to send, representing their experiences and thoughts of the NHS, the group quickly ran full steam ahead. By the close of a very fast-flying 2 hours we were able to produce mood boards, images and ideas, that began to go some way to representing the NHS, and its complex network of meanings. ‘NHS word cards’ created from random selections from participant interviews were particularly successful, in which the team was split into groups and asked to create a ‘continuum’ using these words, having been asked to decide which words they most agree or disagree with when thinking about the NHS. The same cards were then used to create themes, and those themes were then used a starting-point, with the images sent in, for the mood boards.The activities were purposefully kept simple, with the workshop taking a much slower step-by-step approach than would otherwise be taken with a more experienced, practical art group, and the use of the usually (somewhat messy) materials I incorporate into workshops was inappropriate to the needs of the Museum and the setting.

The Museum will continue to work with the groups, as this is an ongoing collaboration for them that will take some time and dedication. However, as a standalone exercise there was much to be gained from this event, and not just for the Museum and the participants in moving forwards with the display. As I left the close of the session, that somewhat brutal, yet insightful, comment from a participant – ‘you have your work cut our for you’ – still rang in my ears. It left me wondering if it is indeed nigh on impossible to represent the NHS and its complex ideologies though static images or objects. Even in TV drama and film, we implicitly assume that the footage we see – an unfolding drama a&e drama, for example –  is the NHS. We assume so unless decidedly told otherwise because the NHS, fundamentally, is medicine for almost all of us.

But more than this, I wondered, when it comes to trying to get to grips with the NHS and its meaning through exhibits, objects and images, are we stuck with either quite literal images that fall short of saying anything meaningful or with depth, or else a collection of visual symbols that most would need a doctorate in Art History to comprehend? Perhaps not. For one thing, there is indeed space for both the literal display– through say, the material culture of campaign banners and protest photographs – but also, and alongside it, the more metaphorical exploration. Indeed, representing ‘intangibles’ is what art, film and even museums, very often, do actually do. So it is perhaps the greater disservice to assume that the public would not have the appetite, or visual literacy, to engage with such displays. Indeed, in my previous research on abortion I wrote 80,000 words explaining how abortion has been used in literature to represent wider, existential concepts, and produced a recent article for Feminist Legal Studies discussing the same obstacles around visual encoding for abortion, but without resigning to ultimate ‘visual defeat’. The British public literacy around the NHS, in fact, was evident in responses to the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. While many nations watched on in utter confusion at the amalgamation of children in hospital beds, fictional heroines and dancing nurses and healthcare staff, the British public knew exactly what all this meant: this was ‘our NHS’. The most invisible visible institution of them all.

NHS in the frame

A guest post by Katy Canales, Acting Curator, V&A Museum of Childhood

The V&A Museum of Childhood’s collection of children’s spectacles spans over 200 years. Their innovative and creative designs incorporate the technological and societal developments during this period, from the start of industrial-scale manufacturing to the founding of the National Health Service (NHS).

The earliest pair in the collection is an adjustable, wire framed set, hand-made in London, which date from around [?] 1800. In contrast, the most recent pair is a plastic, replica set from a Harry Potter fancy dress costume, mass produced in China from 2001-2 (fig.1). Despite the differences in date, production and purpose, they are strikingly similar in appearance with simple monotone frames, hinged legs and small round lenses. Other glasses which shares these features date from 1939, and were worn by Bruce Angus Ogilvie from Dundee (fig.2). Their adaptive, bendy design meant that they could be worn without snapping, under a gas mask during the Second World War (1939-45).

Figure 1. Harry potter costume, about 2011-2. Museum no. B.31-2003

Figure 2. Spectacles and case; about 1939. Museum no. B.93-2014

By far the most prevalent pairs of glasses within our collection are the National Health Service’s (NHS) ‘C524 and C525 frames’ (fig.3). These popular frames were issued for free to children between 1948-1986. Just like the adult ‘525 frames’, these frames have a slightly winged top, a keyhole-shaped bridge, clear acetate pads, and the hinged sides are reinforced with a metal core. One point of difference in the design of the children’s spectacles is that the legs curved inwards and the feet were made to be circled around the child’s ears, in a bid to keep the spectacles from sliding off during play (fig.3). Made to last, these spectacles were available in a limited spectrum of robust, coloured cellulose acetate, with colours including ice blue, crystal, flesh, light brown mottle, dark brown mottle, and black.

Figure 3. Child’s spectacle Frames; British, 1960-69. Museum no. B.306-1996

The V&A Museum of Childhood also holds in its collection three templates, or jigs, which were used by opticians from the 1960s to make these now iconic glasses (fig. 4-6). These jigs, plus three pairs of early NHS children’s glasses, have recently gone on public display at Design Society, in the Shekou district in Shenzhen, China, as an example of how British design responded to mass health issues. Design Society is a world class cultural institution designed by Fumihiko Maki, and is the creative collaboration between the China Merchants Shekou and the V&A Museum.

To find out more about the V&A Museum of Childhood please visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/moc/collections/ or discover more about the Museum’s objects here

 

Figure 4. Template for making child’s spectacles; British, 1960-85. Museum no. B.314-1996

 

Figure 5. Template for making child’s spectacles; British, 1960-85. Museum no. B.315-1996

Figure 6. Template (JIG) for making child’s spectacles; British, 1960-85. Museum no. B.316-1996