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Sunday, 25 September 2016

Should you help the Victor Wynd Museum get a mummy?

Over the past week social media has suddenly been preoccupied with, what we must admit, is one of the strangest crowdfunding projects we've ever seen. The Victor Wynd Museum in Hackney is trying to buy the mummified head of a 1000 year old Peruvian child, for the somewhat bizarre fundraising goal of £6666.00.  While it is presented by the Museum in its indigogo page as a bit of good fun, and 'money well spent', we certainly can see some red flags with the whole affair. Does Hackney really need a mummy? And if it does, why should it go to the Victor Wynd Museum? Most importantly, should you give your hard earned cash to Victor Wynd to achieve it? To try and figure it out, we've taken sides for and against. We leave it up to you to decide.


The Victor Wynd Museum opened two years ago with money raised from over 500 contributors. Developed from the artist's original Last Tuesday Society, the Museum combines taxidermy, art and human and animal remains to create its own unique spin on the Cabinet of Curiosities. Since it's inauguration, the Museum has already brought in over 15,000 visitors - a testament to its popularity and the support of the surrounding Hackney Community. Kitted out with a bar and lounging areas, the Museum hosts exhibitions alongside its unique displays. They might have the gold-encrusted rhino skull of Pablo Escobar but what they don't have is a mummy. And why shouldn't they?

As the tag line for the fundraising campaign states, the British Museum has thousands of mummies, so why shouldn't Hackney have just one? Well, I'm sure you've just heard above lots of the reasons why. But the fact of the matter is that small museums like Wynd's play an important role in communities. Small museums might not necessarily follow all of the same standards of display and interpretation of accredited ones, but that doesn't make the engagement they do with their audiences any less important. Death and dying is a central theme of Wynd's displays, and who is to say the only way to present that subject is the way a big museum might? It is perhaps the kinds of people who are put-off by the somewhat old-fashioned institutions who enjoy visiting Wynd's, and shouldn't they have an equal right to engage with mummies?

Let's not forget, museums themselves arose out of the same exhibitionary impulse that resulted in freak shows and even shopping malls. The desire to see and discuss the interesting and unusual is still at the core of what even large accredited museums do - albeit mediated by new professional standards. Also, it's important to point out that while it might be uncomfortable to some people, the Museum isn't doing anything illegal in acquiring the mummy. Human remains over 100 years old and their display are not covered by the Human Tissue Act, and in their fundraising the Museum acknowledges that they need to build a special environmentally controlled case to house their new acquisition. If the idea of putting a price tag on human remains makes you uncomfortable, you have to remember that other museums and collectors are going to be competing to buy this mummified head anyway. If there is an issue with anything, I think the question is why is the Uppsalla Museum selling this mummified head? But seeing as how it is being sold, why shouldn't it be in Hackney?

Sure anus chocolate and whale penis bones aren't the normal sort of membership perks you get from a museum, but they certainly get your attention. If museums, and particularly fundraising officers, are wondering how it is you reach out to young people, they could maybe learn a thing or two from Victor Wynd. 'Millenials' (and you know how much we hate that word) like experiences, different and unique experiences. And participating in this fundraising campaign is certainly one! The recent success of the Eric crowdfunding project at the Science Museum shows people are keen to be involved in museum projects, particularly with prizes on the line. And yet I somehow feel more uncomfortable with a national museum like the Science Museum getting money from the public than a small start up like Victor Wynd which exists almost purely from donations.

Giving money to the campaign is definitely not for everyone. I mean - it takes a specific kind of person to really want to own some mummy dust. But I don't think we can say that's the 'wrong' way to interact with history. If the thought of taking a mummy head home with you floats your boat, or maybe makes you want to learn more about Peruvian mummies, then by all means donate! The crowdfunding is certainly a good way to start some very interesting conversations about humans remains, display and the public.


'Hackney NEEDS a mummy'  the words are blasted across the Internet and a big banner campaign in the borough whilst we always support smaller museums is this really an appropriate campaign when talking about the mummified remains of a human child? Museums and Galleries have had a consistent and challenging dialogue regarding the display of human remains over the past twenty years and although the 1000 year old remains do not fall into any murky legal water they do fall into the huge ethical debate about how such objects can be cared for and displayed. 

While the Victor Wynd Museum's displays isn't dictated to by DCMS, nor listed as an accredited museum it does not have to adhere to the codes of ethics. However, this is still a publicly accessible space and therefore its display of human remains should remain respectful and responsible with a significant emphasise on its cultural understanding. As you can currently dine on the showcase of other human remains in this museum is there a real respect for the sensitivities of the dead and does this  act advance visitors knowledge? 

The campaign so far hasn't given much information as to the provenance and history of the object. From some brief research the Chimu people within their belief systems were partial to sacrificing shells and their children to their preferred god - the moon. Doesn't this need to be reflected within the museum's campaign? Isn't it important to discuss this also in the justification of the acquisition like with most other museums? The Wellcome Collection does currently have a mummy on display from this same indigenous group yet their tactics online and in its gallery space are much more sensitive, opening up a dialogue about the display. If the Wellcome can, why can't Victor Wynd?

On an initial look it appears that the Victor Wynd museum is acting out as a spoilt child in their comparisons with other boroughs collections and the crowdfunding campaign is perhaps a bit vulgar in its offerings to donors. For £5 you can have an imaginary kiss and for £30 you can have a pinch of mummy dust from the showcase - ergh what? And for a very generous £2000 you can take the mummy away with you for a night and drive it about in your own car - in this case any consideration for collections care really has gone way out of the window. Asking for £6666 for the mummy the campaign so far has only reach 11% of its backing yet hopes for more to ensure that the museum can buy a fancy climate controlled showcase - but what happens if they don't reach the expanding goal? Do the remains just go into an uncontrolled showcase or really are they asking for something they can achieve without crowdfunding? 

There is no doubt that this is a contentious and insensitive ask from the museum. Shouldn't the preservation and interpretation of the collection be core to its campaign to acquire more from your pockets?

In typical Ministry fashion we've argued both sides and hopefully haven't lost our ability to visit Victor Wynd's ( we are big fans of the museum and their talk programmes) but in the name of museum loving controversy we've had our say, now what are your thoughts? 

Friday, 9 September 2016

Taxidermy at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Here at the Ministry we are all about London – but on the occasions that we do get to travel, we obviously have to report back about our museum adventures. On a recent trip to New York we finally had the opportunity to visit the place we like to think of as our spiritual home in the US- the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. We arrived, unannounced, on the eve of the opening of the Museum’s new exhibition Taxidermy: Art, Science and Immortality, featuring the famous Kitten Wedding tableau by English taxidermist Walter Potter. Despite the spontaneous nature of our visit, Creative Director Joanna Ebenstein took some time out to speak to us about the exhibition and the work of the museum.

As we walked in the door it was immediately apparent we had not come at a good time. With the exhibition opening shortly, install was not quite finished yet, and an impending courier arrival was the focus of the staff. Possibly because she is one of the most generous and kind people working in the field, Joanna decided to take some time out to take us through our first visit to the museum and even into the as yet unopened exhibition space. With the museum all to ourselves, Joanna told us more about the exhibition, the Library and some of the ins-and-outs of running a small museum.

The dream for the Museum had arisen from the original Morbid Anatomy Library- a resource centre created by Joanna using her own books and object collection which she has amassed through her own research and curatorial work. She explained how, unlike us lucky sods in London with our Wellcome Collection, our Science Museum, our Hunterian, there wasn’t any space in New York to have academic discussions about art, death, science and beauty. The Library still forms the heart of the Morbid Anatomy Museum – an inviting space on the second floor where people can come to read, chat and explore through Ebenstein’s ever growing collection. Unlike a traditional museum, you can actually handle any of the items on open display in the library room – from votive candles to bottles, artificial teeth and medical x-rays. The space had been transformed in honour of the exhibition to have a special natural history twist.

The star of the show however is of course the exhibition space, consisting of two hall-ways and a large central display area which showcases the Taxidermy exhibition. The display seeks to delve deeper into the many different aspects of taxidermy - the strange, the funny, the scientific, the familiar and the uncomfortable. Although the art of taxidermy can trace its origins to the ancient Egyptians, it wasn't until the nineteenth century when the practice came into its own. Wide spread interest in the natural world, and arguable the connection between the amateur scientist and the wealthy elite, prompted a craze for taxidermy so it became ubiquitous with the English, and indeed American, middle class home. In the world of ever expanding knowledge which characterised the Victorian era, this method of preservation was ideal for bringing home to the West specimens of exotic animals never before seen by the majority of the population. But taxidermy could also be funny (such as the anthropomorphic spanking frog, or a bear who served as a tray bearer), strange (from the world of carnivals and freak shows), exotic (the wall-mounted specimens of fierce predators from Africa, Asia and beyond), or very close to home (as in the display of a beloved pet). Today taxidermy continues to fascinate and repulse us (see Crap Taxidermy) and has become the subject of a renewed collecting interest. 

As we chatted, the staff waited patiently for the Kitten Wedding to arrive. It’s custom case prepared, it was a countdown to the courier’s arrival. While we have generally worked in larger museums and all the protocols that entails, the Morbid Anatomy Museum works largely with private collectors. Although it might lead to slightly harrowing moments when things don’t go according to plan, working closely with the private sphere allows Ebenstein and her collaborators to access untapped resources typically hidden away in the homes of their owners. The lion’s share of this exhibition had come from just such a collector, J.D. Powe, who also curated the display and wrote much of the text. The unique interests of people like Powe and others is what allow Morbid Anatomy to display things like a large collection of stuffed domestic dogs- a focus probably too niche for any museum.

While we weren’t able to see the Kitten Wedding in person, Taxidermy stands alone as a strong exhibition. Of course, the story of Kitten Wedding and Walter Potter, particularly his amateur but loving attempts at the art of taxidermy, fits perfectly with the exhibitions themes. However, from anthropomorphic frogs to elephant’s feat, sawfish tusks, conjoined calves, and even an anteater there is plenty to see. Potter, while perhaps particularly appealing to the average visitor due to his cache as an English folk artist, might be a draw, to overlook the collection of fascinating objects surrounding Kitten Wedding would be to miss the heart of Taxidermy. It is a show about the multifarious ways in which we are fascinated and repulsed by death, and the clever art of preserving life indefinitely. From the show’s earliest examples in the early nineteenth century through to the present day, taxidermy has proved to be an enduring interest for specialist and laypeople alike. If we really had to pick a favourite piece, it would be the Victorian taxidermy bird fireplace guard. Recalling a time when taxidermy birds were a must for any fashionable home, this extraordinary piece mimics the elaborate natural styles of the period in actual preserved animals. Displayed together with a fireplace for effect, we are reminded that taxidermy was once a part of everyday life.

In the end, Kitten Wedding arrived and the exhibition opened seamlessly to glowing reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. Needless to say, if you do find yourself in the New York area a trip to Morbid Anatomy now (and in the future!) is a must. But as we poked through the gift shop and sat at the large communal table, we were reminded that the Morbid Anatomy Museum is much more than just the exhibition space. It’s a hub which provides a home for anyone interested in the strange and unusual – a conversation starter and a study space. While London has plenty to offer, we think the world needs a few more places like Morbid Anatomy. 

If you can't get to New York to see the show, the Museum has helpfully provided a Youtube tour for all their virtual visitors. Check it out!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Visions of the Great White South: Cambridge in Bonhams

Last week we went along for a tour of the Polar Museum's pop-up exhibition at Bonhams, Visions of the Great White South. Curated by Charlotte Connolly, the exhibition brings together art and images from the Scott Polar Expedition, alongside contemporary art commissioned by the Scott Polar Research Institute. We live tweeted the tour and now you can get a sneak peak here. The exhibition is only on until this Friday August 19th and we highly recommend a visit! 

From the bustle of Bond Street to the silence of the Pole

We love whenever regional museums get to showcase their collections in London, so of course we had to get down and see what the Polar Museum was doing on Bond Street! Maybe a strange choice of venue for a display of (not for sale) historic images- or so we thought.

Kicking of the tour with curator from - a research institute which also has a historic collection

Actually I didn't really know very much about the Polar Research Institute aside from that they had a museum. It's worth looking up the really interesting work they do - polar research not just a thing from the early twentieth century! 

Exhibition features work from the official artists of the Scott Polar Exhibition inspired by his work Broken Ice

Curator Charlotte Connolly was inspired by this image from the Terra Nova Expedition's official camera artist, Herbert Ponting. Ponting actually created a documentary about the expedition called the Great White Silence. 

Exhibition also includes beautiful water colours by artist and scientist EA Wilson

But Ponting wasn't alone in capturing the Pole- the exhibition also had along watercolour artist and scientist EA Wilson. This image features a very teeny tiny church on top of the outcropping built by the expedition team. 

Herbert Ponting - the camera artist on the expedition, captured everyday life for an explorer at Cape Evans

Ponting was really a 'camera artist' rather than a purely scientific photographer. He also took pictures of everyday life on the expedition, as well as stunning portraits. This one was taken just as this man returned from a push towards the Pole. 

Apparently Captain Scott became quite a good photographer on the expedition - with his work

In the eyes of Captain Scott, it was important that all members of the expedition were trained to be competent scientific photographers. Scott himself took to photography, and the exhibition features a number of images taken by him, including some very early panoramic photos. 

Wilson and Ponting always wanted an exhibition together of their photos and watercolours - finally realised

Exhibition artists Ponting and Wilson had always hoped for a joint exhibition of their works, but Wilson died on the fated journey back from the Pole alongside Scott. Perhaps due to the grief of Wilson's widow, the exhibition never happened. Now some of their works have finally been reunited. 

So why are we in ? Because they sponsor artist in residence who travels to Antarctica

Well the big reveal- we are at Bonhams because they sponsor an artist-in-residence at the Polar Institute! These lucky artists get to travel down to the Pole each year to capture the science of polar exploration through art. These paintings were actually done by Captain Scott's granddaughter!

A closing note on the epic landscapes of Emma Stibbon

The contemporary art portion of the exhibition is really stunning. I thought this was a photograph but its actually a drawing! Amazing to see how the Pole is still an inspiration for generations of artists. 

A fantastic mix of history, science and art we really can't recommend Visions of the Great White South enough! It's free to visit so just pop down to Bonhams anytime this week. There are even tours available this Friday:

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Ministry on the Move: Museum of the History of Science Oxford

We may be suckers for London’s incredible offer but sometimes we do leave the big smoke in search of some of the UK’s other museum treasures, it’s no lie most of our holidays are dominated by a museum loving search. My recent weekend away in Oxford was no different to any other, it was all about museums – and a bit of food and drink too.

Pitt Rivers Museum 
As you’ll be aware Oxford has an incredible amount of richness to offer when it comes to museums, the Ashmolean, The Museum of Oxford and the Bodleian provide a great cultural offer. Then of course there is the Pitt Rivers, as an anthropology graduate and arrow lover (early career projects) the Pitt Rivers often feels like the resting point for my soul, especially as its dark and jam packed with ethnography. Nonetheless, I’m not going to urge you guys to visit,  if you haven’t been already there is no doubt that there is a deep desire to go already and check out the collection of one of the founding fathers of Anthropology.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History
There’s also a lot of time to be had in the Oxford UniversityMuseum of Natural History,   featuring the exciting and expected dinosaur skeletons, some awesome taxidermy and on this occasion we became enthralled with the rock collection. The institution may have been slammed recently for its claim that exhibits are being destroyed due to the lack of UV filters on the glass roof but let’s just remember that this is a very valid and necessary point, increased temperature and sunlight can indeed destroy objects as our conservation friends will tell you so let’s support them in their application to Oxford City Council and increased the awareness of conservation of museum collections!

But today we want to talk to you about the Museum of the Historyof Science. It’s the world’s oldest purpose built museum (1683!) that hosts a stunning collection of objects relating to the history of Science.

Entering the museum is a bit of a maze, as you would suspect Oxford is a pretty busy tourist town and free museums occupy much of their time. However, I was initially pleased to see the front of house staff, under considerable strain from the crowds remain incredibly chipper and welcomed us into the space full of dazzling showcases of sundials, astrolabes and navigation equipment.

Lewis Carroll's wet plate photographic kit
The whole collection is fascinating and luxurious,  but it’s in the basement where the fun really begins. The main room is an ornate cavern with wooden showcases and pink backed cabinets filled with glorious scientific specimens including ornate drug jars telescopes and experimenting kits. It’s in this gallery that you too find objects belonging to Lewis Carroll and Einstein. In a showcase you’ll see a wooden box of vials and bottles – a wet plate photographic equipment box belonging to Lewis Carroll whose interest in photography included photographing family friend Alice Lidell the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. On the wall sits Einsteins blackboard (so iconic it has its own Wikipedia page!) the board of which was used when he was lecturing in Oxford, obviously their use is for short term documentation of presentations yet when already a celebrity Einstein came to oxford in 1931 it was preserved and acquired by the Museum of the History of Science Oxford and has become their most iconic objects.
Museum of the History of Science 

But one of my favourite things about this museum is that they recognise that they may be a little inaccessible for many and thus since 1995 have been creating virtual versions of their exhibitions for those who are unable to visit. Firstly, this is a bloody lovely thing to do and secondly, I think it’s a really great way to preserve temporary exhibitions for future research and reflection. I particularly like The Star Holder: Lives of the Astrolabe exhibition 

If you’re heading out west definitely stop by this great City for a day or a whole weekend and take  time to visit the great museums it offers. If you do get a chance to visit also head to Beerd for great pizzas and craft beer. But if not, don’t worry, be sure to check out the online exhibitions from the Museum of the History of Science


Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Hipster Museums - London Sewing Machine Museum

There seems to be a lot to love about Tooting at the moment, it’s a South London area that is a real mash up of buildings from Victorian gentrification,  a diverse population and the odd nice coffee shop and burger bar. Not to mention it’s the constituency of the new mayor of London Sadiq Khan (yay!). We may have a bit to teach Sadiq Khan on London’s museums (check out this from Apollo) but Tooting has something extraordinary to show us when it comes to being the home of our next hipster museum – The London Sewing Machine Museum.

Found above the Wimbledon Sewing Machine company building the museum is only open in the first Saturday of every month for only three hours.  It’s a surprising treasure trove of a seemingly well documented collection of you’ve guessed it – sewing machines. The collection of over 600 machines fills two large rooms on the first floor of the building and  even spills out onto the staircase and entrance to the company.

 It’s an immediately satisfying experience for any museum  lover to see how much there is in this private collection -  especially as I was expecting it to a small cabinet in the back of a haberdashery! Each object is delicately labelled with the make and date and in the first room organised carefully onto open storage racks, visitors have to carefully negotiate those objects filling the floor space too but with an adults only approach it doesn’t seem to be much of a concern.

The second room is the where you’ll find the riches of the collection lavishly displayed in mahogany glass cabinets and a plush red carpet the collection feels just like the expectation of a private museum, there is even a reproduced shop front of the first building the Wimbledon Sewing Machine company owned. The rooms host little interpretation text so we were fortunate in this space to catch up with the enthusiastic tour guide and get the low down on the collection and its owner.

Owner of the sewing machine company and museum Ray Rushton became enthralled with the machines as a young boy helping out at his fathers new business. The story goes that he and his father would roam the streets for sewing machines and bring them into their shop for repair, as the years went by he collected the machines and built the company. Its not clear when  the museum opened to the public and although the establishment is a bit unknown it is proving very popular. The collection is like no other and there were even some visitors that had flown in from the US just to check it out.

The second space features the rare, popular and beautiful. One in particular was a wedding gift from Queen Victoria to her daughter, as luxurious as you can imagine the machine even has spools made of either. Next up is the sewing machine that fetched the most money at auction. The Thimmonier, a sewing machine like no other when it was released in 1829 in a small batch, it is thought to be one of the last surviving of the practical and widely used machines.  On loving display alongside it, is its documentation to certify its provenance – something you don’t see in your everyday museum.  There are even some charming pieces that show the influence of the sewing machine in this space, including some small automatons that do a basic chain stitch!

The machines are consistently beautiful and charming this museum is a real treasure trove not to be missed out on. Check it out on the first Saturday of every month and if you get a chance pop to the haberdashery next door. That’s pretty cute too.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Thoughts on museum blogging - be kind to yourself

Back in May we co-hosted Museum Hour with the wonderful Tincture of Museums – go check out her page it’s a museum loving feast with an eye to autism in museum.

One of the biggest concerns for those who wanted to start blogging was about finding the time to do so. In one sense this was reassuring as it meant that there were so many of you out there who have something to say about museums and want to get your voice heard. Yet  in another,  it was concerning to hear that museum lovers felt the need to put themselves under some pressure to get access to the museum blogging community, with the strains of temporary work, low paid and more competitive job market many are seeking to blog as a way to stand out from the crowd. In some respect blogging has been helpful to us but in others it has been a hindrance and why you’ll rarely hear me speak about my place of work. Blogging is ultimately meant to be an enjoyable and loveable experience.

We’re not going to lie, here at The Ministry we know how hard it is to keep on writing, finding content and putting it all together into a presentable format is time consuming. You’re probably aware that I work in a national museum as a sort of exhibition registrar and Kristin is studying for her PhD, so sometimes we do go a little bit quiet on the blog. It’s not because we’ve fallen out of love with doing so it’s just because sometimes our work life and personal life can be a bit more demanding that we had expected.

Museums are wonderful places that are often are static in their displays and in other times so fast moving that it’s hard to keep up. Working in South Kensington I often promise myself that I will visit that gallery/new exhibition across the road in my lunchbreak. Sometimes I do manage to venture out, other times I completely fail and realise I haven’t seen a new gallery in my own museum since it opened two years ago because it’s not on a route to a meeting room.

Then there’s the upkeep on social media, I do try to keep quite active personal profiles and keep up with what’s going on in the museum world. But often whole conversations about museum life go amiss on my timeline because I’ve been stuck in a two hour meeting or a cinema and suddenly we’re left feeling like I’m  the worst museum blogger because I haven’t engaged.

Sometimes it feels like the museum world is guilty of other museum enthusiasts a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out). There is now so much content and so much opinion that it can feel like an exhibition has opened, its content debated and closed within a heartbeat and you’ve missed it all. Branding on marketing posters rate permanent galleries as immediate ‘must sees’ and exhibitions posters now have stickered reminders of ‘last few weeks’. The countdown begins and suddenly you’re reminded more of what you haven’t seen than what you have.

Perhaps we’re not giving ourselves enough time to appreciate that museums are often little pockets where time can stand still. Often new permanent galleries are made to last upwards of thirty years, just because your friend or colleague has gone to comment on it doesn’t mean that you’re missing out. You’ll just be there when the crowds have calmed and it really can be that location of sanctuary that we often speak about.

As for social media, it’s a never ending stream and we’re never going to be able to catch every conversation, every debate and every single comment, but check in times like museum hour really help to focus attention. It’s great to spend the 8-9pm on a Monday engaging with the conversation and feeling like you are part of the community for the hour or a couple of minutes of it. Then there are great functions like storify that many bloggers use to capture the information that interests them into one stream. It’s a great way of reading up on the tweet s that has just disappeared into your timeline.

Perhaps this article is more of a reminder to be more gentle on myself. Sometimes it’s more important to leave the office at lunchtimes but sometimes you have to let life get in your way and miss out on the latest trend. I hope it can serve as guidance for us museum lovers and part time bloggers to not put too much pressure on ourselves and just take a moment. Blogging is there to enjoy and not to encapsulate at the end of the day most of us are not getting paid for it! Blogging is not a race to a the next opening, take some time to enjoy reading our fellows interpretations and thoughts or take advantage of museums online accessibility and when you have a moment pop in.
But remember when you are there physically or digitally, take it all in and enjoy.

Peace out  

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Guest Post: Alison Moulds on guest curating “Vaccination: Medicine and the masses”

Guest curating “Vaccination: Medicine and the masses” at the Hunterian Museum
Alison Moulds (PhD candidate, University of Oxford)

Alison Moulds at the opening of her collaborative exhibition
This April saw the launch of my first-ever exhibition; working alongside the Hunterian Museum (at the Royal College of Surgeons of England) I helped to guest curate a series of displays that explores the history of vaccination from its inception in the late eighteenth century to its ubiquity in the present day.

My colleague Sally Frampton, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant, and I became involved with the exhibition through our wider research project, Constructing Scientific Communities. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, it looks at citizen science in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, and is particularly interested in interrogating the public-professional divide in fields such as natural history and medicine. We’re partnered with other institutions, including the University of Leicester, Natural History Museum, Royal Society, and Royal College of Surgeons.

Given the focus of our project, when it came to creating the exhibition narrative, we were keen to look at the ways in which ordinary people have contributed to the history of vaccination. This included not only those who had a hand in its discovery – such as Benjamin Jesty, the Dorset farmer whose experiments with cowpox predated those of the GP Edward Jenner – but also those who protested against its usage. During the Victorian period vaccination was made compulsory through legislation, a landmark moment in the history of state public health, but also one which sparked widespread resistance. Our exhibition’s title “Vaccination: Medicine and the masses” signals the way in which we see vaccination as a key site for interactions between medical professionals, individual patients, and the wider public. Pro- and anti-vaccination activities were equally important to us, though we knew a medical museum needed to engage with the scientific aspect as well as the social history.

Cruikshank's The Cowpox Tragedy (1812), Courtesy of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
As newbies to the world of curating, one of the most exciting aspects for us was undoubtedly tracking down the objects for display. We decided early on that we wanted a diverse range of material, from ephemera to medical instruments, portraiture to film. One of our first ports of call was the Hunterian Museum’s own catalogue. Here we found papers belonging to Jenner, including personal correspondence and a draft manuscript of his inquiry into experiments with cowpox (1798). The Hunterian’s in-house collection also contained one of the earliest and most iconic satirical images about vaccination – George Cruikshank’s The Cowpox Tragedy (1812). All these items ended up on display.
We then started exploring other collections, including the Jenner Museum in Gloucestershire, the Gordon Museum of Pathology at King’s College London, and the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Among the gems we discovered was an incredibly affecting set of photographs of smallpox patients from the early twentieth century, which show the devastating effects of the disease. These were objects found ‘behind the scenes’ at the Jenner Museum that we reproduced for the exhibition. Following the installation, seeing the way in which all our objects interact with one another in the space has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the exhibition becoming a reality.

The process of display wasn’t without its hurdles, however. There were anxieties about how to share the reproduced patient photos, as well as human specimens, sympathetically. We didn’t want their inclusion to seem gratuitous, but neither did we want to adopt a sanitised approach. We were committed to showing people the reality of the disease, which is all too easy to forget now it has been eradicated. We also experienced an eleventh-hour emergency when we discovered we didn’t have a suitable screen available to show a wonderful public health information video we’d tracked down at the Wellcome Library. Getting one installed in time was a huge relief, especially since Surprise Attack (1951) has proved immensely popular with visitors. A narrative of mild peril, the film depicts a young girl who contracts smallpox and a town responding with a mass vaccination campaign co-ordinated by the local Medical Officer of Health. One of its biggest draws is probably the fact it features John Le Mesurier, better known for his later role as Sergeant Arthur Wilson in Dad’s Army.

Bringing together such a wide range of objects wasn’t always easy and perhaps one of the biggest difficulties for us was constructing a coherent and accessible narrative about the history of vaccination around them. We hoped to give some sense of the chronology of vaccination but also tease out overarching themes along the way. We wanted to tackle the objects on display but also gesture towards other aspects of the debate. As academics, brevity isn’t always our strong suit and we had to be rigorous about slicing and dicing our beloved words into something that would work well for museum audiences. We also struggled with creating object labels where provenance wasn’t always clear or where it was protracted and confused!

Since our academic research usually sees us poring over weighty tomes on our own, often in a dusty archive somewhere, the collaborative aspect of exhibition work was something we really enjoyed. It enabled us to work not only together, but also with the Museum’s in-house curator (Bruce Simpson) and curators elsewhere, as well as archivists and librarians. We were also committed to promoting wider public engagement around the exhibition, and worked with the Hunterian’s Learning and Events Officer, Hayley Kruger, to organise a “Museums at Night” opening, complete with anti-vaccination songs, a screening of public health information videos from across the twentieth century, and a talk from Dr Richard Barnett, medical historian and author of The Sick Rose. It was great to watch people exploring the space and to hear their thoughts on the exhibition. Rarely does our work have such an immediate and widespread impact.

Alison Moulds is a second-year DPhil English Literature student at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. Working as part of the AHRC-funded project “Constructing Scientific Communities”, and in partnership with the Royal College of Surgeons of England, she is researching the construction of the doctor-patient relationship and the formation of professional identity in nineteenth-century medical writing, including fiction by doctors. She previously undertook her MA Victorian Studies part-time at Birkbeck College, University of London while working full-time in health policy and public affairs. She is Peer Review Editor for the Victorian Network journal. She blogs at and can be found on Twitter @alison_moulds.

“Vaccination: Medicine and the masses” runs from Tuesday 19 April to Saturday 17 September at the Qvist Gallery, Hunterian Museum. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Free admission.