The 2002 Conference

The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.

The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.

Promoting Health Through Public Programs in University Medical Museums

Jenny Horder
Museum Manager, Museum of Human Disease, UNSW

Pathology Museums in the past remained behind close doors to all other than medical students and staff. This is still generally the case for most University Medical museums. The Museum of Human Disease — a pathology collection in the Medical Faculty at the University of New South Wales in Sydney was no different until 1996. The collection houses specimens, which display diseased tissue preserved in formalin. The layout of the main museum area is sectioned in small alcoves classified according to organ type or disease type. It, like many Pathology museums in the mid 1990’s, was under threat. This direction has come about for several reasons:

    • change in medical teaching mode resulting in less university campus teaching and more emphasis on students learning in more clinical settings
    • less emphasis on Pathology in undergraduate medical education overall
    • shortage of space on campus for other usage (e.g. research activities, increasing enrolments in other courses)
    • expense of maintenance and lack of expertise in the techniques resulting in attrition and irreplaceability.

Lack of acquisition in recent times relates to a number of factors including modern treatment and surgical techniques, elimination of some diseases, decrease in autopsies and increasing difficulty in accessing permission to obtain suitable specimens. The latter in particular is reflected in a changing public perception of the retention of human tissue. Do we then just wait and allow these rare but priceless and valuable teaching specimens to become a heritage item?

How do we assist survival of such museums? Part of the answer is that we need to make greater use of these collections. Apart from their continued use in a different mode for teaching revised medical curricula, we need to assess their suitability for expanded roles. A change of direction is required. To support undergraduate and graduate medical teaching, accurate correlation between the appearance of specimens and actual clinical cases is invaluable. They provide a natural history of disease in its three dimensional form, ranging from infectious to non infectious and common to rare. Students and even clinicians would seldom have the opportunity to sight expressions of the rare conditions. Future study and research on preserved tissue is always a possibility as new techniques and knowledge becomes available.

Further use of these endangered collections involves a change of mind-set about exposing the collection to new audiences for which a Pathology museum would have relevance. To assist this metamorphosis at the Museum of Human Disease, a Museum Manager was appointed to develop programs and enlist additional audiences. These have included high schools, TAFE colleges, allied health groups, and other community groups such as scouting, probus and senior groups.

Diverse programs were developed for participation, by appointment, in two-hour programs. Biology students come to study a topic covering human disease in their final year of high school, Senior Science students cover bionics or artificial body replacement devices required when natural tissue or organs fail, while other groups opt for less specific programs related to the human body. For high schools, integration of programs with the curriculum has been of utmost importance. Currently over 5,000 students annually visit the museum and are guided by experienced presenters who communicate outcomes based awareness of disease and promote the pursuit of good health. These programs have become an integral part of the University’s outreach and a centerpiece for the Medical Faculty.

To develop general community audience acceptance and interest in these programs, changes in the presentation of the museum and its associated areas were required. To soften the impact of disease, plants, appropriate artwork, labeled interpretable information and fabric-paneled walls were installed. An additional temporary exhibition space called the "Hall of Health" was established to house thematic exhibitions and displays of particular interest to our lay visitor audience. These include "Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous", "New Parts for Old", the "Pox" exhibition and most recently "Health Hazards in the Workplace," focusing on safety at work.

The tiered lecture theatre, a much appreciated introduction to the "perception" of University life for many high school visitors, has been re-equipped to allow professional presentations using computer, video and data projector facilities.

The Medical Discovery Lab is a more hands-on, highly interactive area offering microscope and computer facilities as well as displayed segments of previous thematic exhibitions and topical displays e.g. the so called "Economy Class Syndrome" about the development of DVT’s after long haul flights.

To deliver effective and appropriate public health education and awareness programs, it has been necessary to improve the opportunity for visitors to interpret the museum content. Communication ability has been a major task for museum staff and volunteers, both through verbal presentations, worksheets and the preparation of thematic exhibitions geared to evoke interest and be informative for non-medical audiences. Photography, digitilisation and labeling of specimen images have been highly valuable exercises. Up to date films and videos add to the multimedia approach employed to maintain interest and ease of interpretation. The translation and editing of "Plain English" catalogues have been an arduous but continuing effort to enrich the lay visitor experience.

To undertake this shift in emphasis from medical and science university level activities to public health programs, has required sometimes "knife edge" scheduling, dovetailing and compromise to implement successfully. However, extending the user audiences in the museum had brought some rewards. A more business oriented and entrepreneurial approach has resulted in the use of the museum facilities overall becoming subject to charge, both for the services offered in community workshop programs and use by external medical specialist training organizations. In addition, the public programs have attracted sponsorship, donations and royalties.

The signs of success as a result of this evolution have been a transformation from an underutilized resource to a thriving and prosperous hub of activity attracting greater usage by all audiences both internal and external to the University. It has stimulated greater interest in knowledge and awareness about health matters and the ways to achieve this. Satisfaction with the programs has continually been gauged by evaluation forms, return visits and referrals by previous visitors, the increasing diversity of visitors and the broad geographic reach of visitors. Visitor groups come from all over NSW, some from interstate and even overseas locations. Income has allowed the upgrading and high quality maintenance of the museum setting. Its greater appeal has meant it being highly valued by the Medical Faculty for seminars and receptions. Annual visits are in the vicinity of 20,000 visits overall, including over 5,000 high school students.

The higher profile and reputation of the museum has expedited loans and interactions with other leading museums and companies. This has enriched the content of the museum for displays and special exhibitions.

The success of the visitor programs has been largely underpinned by the support of a committed group of museum volunteers. Currently, these number 23. They include University student volunteers as well as senior volunteers. They interact directly with visitors to maximize the effectiveness of the museum’s programs. Most of the original senior group have now been involved for six years and still harbour an abiding interest in health, medicine and the welfare of people.

It is to be hoped that this museum and others like it may continue to pursue the strategies and changes that enable them to be promoted more widely as the educational treasures they are. More medical knowledge and history being communicated widely to interested members of the public may be the saving catalyst for these collections.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Professor Denis Wakefield, Head of School of Medical Sciences, UNSW, for his unwavering support and guidance.

Copyright © Jenny Horder 2002.
All rights reserved.

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