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Biomedicine in museums

Anatomical and pathological collections in contemporary medical education

We have just submitted an application for a major new gallery based on our anatomical and pathological specimen collections — and the in-house discussions are already becoming vigorous.

How to find conceptually interesting ways to display cancer tumours, conjoined twins, and twisted torsos? What’s the balance between spectacular engagement and ethical concerns? How to make the historical collections of the macroanatomical past work together with the microanatomical and molecular collections of present biobanks?

During the next couple of years we will embark on a more detailed planning process — we will engage medical experts, medical historians/sociologists, museum colleagues and the general public in a discussion about the best ways to build such a gallery and how to combine it with other activities in the museum.

One of the interesting perspectives is to what extent such a gallery might still play an educational role. Browsing the literature for inspiration, I fell upon an article in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education suggesting that despite the current emphasis on digital learning, some medical schools and many of their students still find collections of anatomical and pathological specimens useful for educational purposes.

As the authors remind us, anatomy and pathology collections (‘medical museums’) were central to medical education in the 19th and throughout most of the 20th century. But the role of such collections have diminished dramatically in recent years, mainly, they suggest, because of the use of information technology and web-based learning.

Accordingly, many medical schools have abandoned their museums and/or given away the collections. A few schools still think their museum collections are important, however, and some have even updated them and equipped them with new technological gadgets to support the interaction with the objects.

Anatomical MuseumThe authors point to the Anatomical Museum of Leiden University Medical Center and the Medical Museum of Kawasaki Medical School in Kurashiki as two prime examples of such upgraded museums.

The main use of the Leiden museum, says its website, is for medical and biomedical instruction, but high school biology teachers and pupils can visit it too. The showcases above contain over 800 medical specimens and models and were set up in 2007.

The Kawasaki museum (below) is huge, with about 2700 specimens on display on three floors in a specially designated building that focuses on contemporary medicine:


I guess most Western medical gallery curators would consider such displays terribly out of fashion. But although both these museums are a far cry away from what we here at Medical Museion will probably think of when we design the new gallery, we shouldn’t forget that such displays may work well for educational purposes. Actually, surveys at the Leiden museum suggest that virtually all students found audio-guided museum tours in the collection “useful for learning” and that a majority (87%) of the students found guided tours in them “to be clinically relevant”. (On the other hand, 69% felt that “museum visits should be optional rather than compulsory within the medical training curriculum”; quotes from the abstract).

I’m definitely not a fan of visitor survey ‘research’, nor do I think the main function of a medical museum today is educational — but it’s nevertheless a perspective worth keeping in mind when we start discussing the design of the new gallery in more detail.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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