The Med Student’s Museum?

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, alumna, UMass Public History

Almost ten years ago now, I heard Linda Friedlander from the Yale Center for British Art talk about the museum’s innovative program for first-year medical students. Using visual thinking strategies well-known to art historians, this class aimed to help future physicians hone their ability to correctly assess patients and clinical situations. Museums as labs for medical students? Or training grounds for police officers? Sign me up. The idea remained lodged in the back of my mind – I, too, wanted to take on the challenge of collapsing disciplinary boundaries in the museum setting.

The opportunity finally presented itself while I was working at the Taubman Museum of Art, developing programs for college students and adults. The Taubman is located in Roanoke, Virginia, where Carilion Clinic is big business. This network of hospitals and providers stretches across rural southwestern Virginia, providing care to over one million Virginians and acting as one of the largest employers in the region. The museum had recently formed a young professionals group to help us organize events and encourage membership; several people in the group had ties to Carilion.

After a few meetings, I learned that one group member directed the Roanoke Brain Study at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; the project focuses on human decision-making and the ways in which cultural messages affect our decisions. Her research examines the ways our brain assigns value to abstract concepts, and how, for example, these valuations – monetary, social, etc. – might influence our interpretation of art (among other things). A collaboration was born. Not only did this seem like an ideal entry point to explore the connections between visual thinking, medical practice, and neuroscience, but our development office found the possibility of attracting a whole new audience to the museum quite appealing.


– A functional MRI shows increased brain activity in certain areas while volunteers make decisions about certain works of art. (Roanoke Brain Study)

We called our first event “This Is Your Brain on Art.” It was part of a series of programs entitled “Conversations,” designed to bring together people from different backgrounds to share their unique perspective on a particular exhibition. Up to this point, we paired experts in different fields – maybe photography and history, say – but not different disciplines entirely. For this event, Dr. Harvey provided the scientific narrative; our education staff and audience served as the counterfoil, by participating in an interactive exercise assigning value to paintings in galleries. The program got rave reviews from the audience, although the balance of the conversation skewed towards the neuroscience.

Our next step was to develop a more focused set of programs, which we referred to as the Science Café. Admittedly, our project was much smaller in scope than those that served as my initial inspiration. There are so many ways in which the visual arts and biological sciences overlap, and although our constituency included a sizable population of people in both fields, they weren’t talking to each other – and certainly not within the walls of the museum. Our modest goal was to create a space where they could have a regular dialogue, thereby influencing each other’s thinking and methodology. (Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this model shares some similarities with medical humanities programs. These new initiatives teach medical students to employ narrative or historical context, for example, to enrich their training.) We were concerned about a number of things that could impede the success of the Science Café, but mostly, I wanted our choice of topics and presenters to be very precise. The most crucial component, in my mind, was that we select issues for discussion that were neither squarely in the field of neuroscience (like our first event) nor purely art historical in nature. Our initial slate of topics included an examination of color theory (central in both fields, but conceived of differently) and a discussion about the varied meanings of elegance (elegant design, elegant solutions, etc.).

The Science Café didn’t quite get off the ground. Financial considerations and a changing executive structure meant certain initiatives were benched for a bit. And yet, our initial program had some legs. This spring, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine turned the Science Café on its head and created a mini medical school targeted towards non-professionals, called “Anatomy for Artists and Other Curious Sorts.” The opening seminar for the program was drawn from our very first event, proving that both communities continue to be interested in finding opportunities to bridge the disciplinary divide.

Later this month, the New England Museum Association will be highlighting these kinds of programs (and many, many others) during their annual conference; the theme is “Picture of Health: Museums, Wellness, and Healthy Communities.” In addition to the presentations from the MFA and other art museums about medical-museum collaborations, I plan to attend a few of the talks that speak even more directly to public historians. I am eager to hear about the myriad creative ways in which museums across the region are meeting new and interdisciplinary goals and serving as a laboratory for students in a variety of professions. Two sessions focus on reading objects; bringing historical analysis to bear with visual thinking skills is an important piece of the puzzle for museums with object-based collections. I am also looking forward to hearing about issues-based exhibitions and programs, like those at the Culinary Arts Museum, the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Yale Peabody Museum, as I am convinced history museums are poised to develop partnerships with medical schools that could simultaneously benefit both medical students and the museum’s own audiences. (Think explorations of historical foodways paired with dietician training or pop-up object analysis on a medical school campus.) Lots of food for thought – I hope to see you there.

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