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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.

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