Redefining Museum

What happens to a museum dedicated to the history of a particular industry when the industry itself is at the centre of an emergency? What is the potential of a medical museum when any reflection on the relationship between the past and the future is reduced to 24 hours’ worth of the latest data to be used in modelling new scenarios of a pandemic? At a time when conspiracy theories are degrading the social standing of experts, how resilient is the immune system of the museum’s messages on medicine?

The recent state of emergency has highlighted shortcomings in the museum’s functionality, revealing the need to evaluate the museum’s own bill of health and the definition of health within this context. The 2021 programme of events of the Pauls Stradiņš Medicine History Museum is devoted to these issues.

The museum’s programme for 2021 is envisaged as an exercise in institutional self-criticism at a time of change. The global pandemic experience has brought the stress of conflict into public views on health and health-related issues. It is therefore vital that aspects of social history, anthropology and culture theory are also highlighted in medicine, a natural and technological science. The programme’s public discourse will examine the museum’s history of operations – the goals at its inception and the consequences of ideological departures; the provenance of its collections and the socio-political dimension of the formation of the museum’s stocks; the exhibition traditions cultivated over six decades and the dynamics of the museum’s relationship with its current and potential audiences. Over the span of a year, the museum will function as an interdisciplinary research laboratory, analysing the museum’s full blood count and prognosis. To a museum, like any other living organism, viability in an increasingly variable environment means constant recovery; and any recovery usually brings a new and different understanding of health.

Blood is important. It has always been important, and it has always seemed to be important to everyone. It is eminently visible, being the only internal organ that regularly surfaces for perusal. All humans have seen some of their own blood; have made thoughts about it. 

Jacalyn Duffin

In 1961, when the Pauls Stradiņš Medicine History Museum was opening its doors at its new home in a Riga Boulevard Circle villa, 26-year-old Leonid Rogozov, a doctor with a Soviet Antarctic expedition, became a worldwide media sensation. Having diagnosed himself with acute appendicitis out in the middle of nowhere, 1600 kilometres beyond the last research station, he went under his own knife, using just a local anaesthetic and a mirror held by a fellow explorer.

Two-in-one – both the physician and the patient – also describes the situation in which the Museum of the History of Medicine currently finds itself. An urgent operation of redefinition must be performed to align the museum’s activities to the changes in public views on health brought about by the pandemic.

Blood Count, the museum’s research project residency programme, invites participants from outside the field to work with the museum’s collections, library resources and loft archives. This brings a prism of different outlooks and experiences to the research and helps to diversify the range of professional approaches and tools.

A person in a wheelchair views the exhibit on empathy in the history of medicine exhibition from a very different perspective. The museum’s conference room mural, ‘Greatest Doctors of the World’ – a group portrait of 38 male physicians – is a good starting point for an examination of equality in the writing of history. The proportion of art and science in medicine can be researched and jointly debated by specialists of physiology, dance therapy, health insurance, sport and gene engineering. The aim of the residency programme is to bring the 

The aim of the residency programme is to bring the principle of compliance to the museum’s operations. In healthcare terminology this word underscores the importance of an individual’s practical, intellectual and moral involvement and contribution to their own health and also public health. The messages of medicine history have a binary structure: alongside the story of the medic they also carry the voice of the patient.

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The first residency participants invited by the museum’s scientific research specialist Inga Vigdorčika are Katrīna Neiburga and Jānis Noviks – active Latvian contemporary art practitioners with good knowledge of creative research methods and modern technologies. After an examination of the museum, the artists have highlighted its unnoticed aspects: just as silence is a part of music, the unseen and the inability to see are an important component of visual culture. 

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Jānis Noviks brings patients’ voices to the museum exhibition – they are as impersonal as disease descriptions in an encyclopaedia entry. At the foundation of his sound installation are vinyl recordings from the second edition of the Soviet-published Great Medical Encyclopaedia (1956–1964). The records are a compilation of sounds produced by the human body during pathological processes, as well as examples of stuttering and speech affected by mental disorders.

Jānis Noviks’ composition is a reflection on the audio-technical aspects of patient ‘auscultation’. The space selected for playback is a room devoted to 19th century medicine, featuring an exhibit of a collection of early stethoscopes. This medical device was invented by René Laennec, a major driving force in early clinical medicine. The stethoscope’s success was ensured by two factors. Firstly, clinical medicine allowed the auscultated diagnoses to be confirmed in the hospital autopsy rooms after the patient’s death. (It could be argued this cultivation of the imaginative skills of visualising sound, turning it into a virtual album of pathological anatomy, was the first step on the road to ultrasonography.) Secondly, the acoustic cylinder tactfully set a socially significant distance between doctor and patient.

A dedicated flutist in his youth, René Laennec included detailed descriptions of the tonal and rhythmic aspects of ‘pulmonary rales’ and ‘heart gallops’ in the manuals of his acoustic diagnostic device. In addition, his experiences during the reign of terror during the French Revolution led him to the notion that many ailments are the result of traumatic events – and therefore, for diagnostic purposes, it is prudent to also interview the patient.

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Katrīna Neiburga has used the residency to add to the museum’s considerable portrait gallery, which is dominated by commissioned works from the 1950s – paintings created from photos or fine art reproduction photographs. Set in opulent frames from the turn of the 20th century, these portraits hark back to a time when an impressively framed oil painting was still a medium that could convey social prestige and authority.

For her portraits, Katrīna Neiburga employs the technological means that are available to 21st century video art, but keeps away from the talking head format, since the subjects she has chosen for her story are obstinate and reckless characters who operate outside any kind of box.

She found her protagonists in Hugo Glaser’s book ‘The Drama of Medicine’, which is devoted to physicians who have carried out risky medical experiments on themselves: by ingesting the cholera vibrio, spending a night in the sweat-soaked nightshirt of a typhoid patient, or infecting a self-inflicted cut with pus or blood from a plague, leprosy or syphilis sufferer. 

Among them is Polish-born research physician Clara Fonti of the National Cancer Institute in Milan. To challenge the assumption that malignant tumours are caused by viruses, she rubbed her breast in a patient’s open cancer lesion, which led to serious blood poisoning. 

Just another example of a blood test one may encounter at the museum…

Published: January, 2021

Kaspars Vanags

Kaspars Vanags

Museum's director


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