Dittrick Museum awarded grant for interactive exhibit highlighting evolution of medicine in America

Exhibit at Dittrick Museum of Medical HistoryIn the last century, Cleveland has transitioned from rust belt to health care hub. The city, once known for its steel mills, now is recognized for its prestigious medical institutions, including Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals, Cleveland Clinic, the Metro Health System, the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center and others.

The unlikely evolution begs the question: How did the once industrial-dependent city make such a transition? And, moreover, what role did Cleveland play in the formation of present-day medicine?

These questions and more are the topic of a new project by the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University, titled “How Medicine Became Modern: A Humanities Perspective.”

“Medicine doesn’t exist in vacuum, it exists in context,” said James Edmonson, the principal investigator of the project, chief curator of the museum and adjunct associate professor of history. “Cleveland was a microcosm of broader developments in medicine, so we decided to use it to help tell the broader narrative of western medicine in America.”

James EdmonsonThe project, funded by a $399,735 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), places an exploratory medical history narrative at the public’s fingertips—literally.

Inspired by Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the project will be a digital, interactive presentation of the Dittrick Museum’s artifacts that mark transformative moments in American medicine.

The museum is partnering with Zenith Systems, a technical solutions provider, and Bluecadet, an Emmy Award-winning digital agency, to create a free-standing, 10-foot-by-4-foot digital wall in the main gallery that allows patrons to interact with artifacts—and learn the human stories behind them.

“We want to start the conversation with the artifacts,” said Brandy Schillace, research associate and public engagement fellow at the museum. “These objects represent turning points in medicine and tell multiple stories. We want people to understand how errors and side roads helped shape medicine.”

The exhibit will put a focus on four lenses of medical history, allowing patrons to discover how they intersect:

  • Tools and Innovation: What advances in medical technology changed the American experience? Why and how did they work?
  • Women’s Health and Reproduction: Women as patients, women as healers: what do these artifacts tell us about women’s roles in health and medicine?
  • Communities in Crisis: How did the tragedy and triumph of historical epidemics shape how we approach disease prevention today?
  • Spread of Ideas: How did the interchange of knowledge help make medicine modern?

Brandy Schillace“It’s really hard to know where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been,” said Schillace. “The past helps shape medicine in the future.”

That idea was the basis for the project—initially brought forth by Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine administrators.

Each school discussed the need for a history component to medical education, resulting in separate subcommittees looking to address how the exhibit could be presented at each school. The first version of the project will be at the museum, while other versions may be available at the schools’ expense.

“We want the project to grow organically at the museum before it eventually goes down the street to the medical schools,” said Edmonson. “We’ll constantly be adding content and taking into account feedback from people.”

The initial version at the museum is expected to open in 2017.

“The content is what I love, but what really moves me as public engagement fellow is getting beyond the walls and sharing history with the public,” Schillace said.

Read more about the project at: dittrickmuseumblog.com/2015/07/30/embracing-digital-history-how-medicine-became-modern/.

Learn more about the museum at artsci.case.edu/Dittrick/ and follow it on Facebook and Instagram.

Also, sign up to attend the museum’s new series “Conversations”—a bi-monthly presentation and discussion ranging a variety of medical-history related topics.