Episode 96

96. Tegan Kehoe Explores American Healthcare Through 50 Museum Artifacts


November 15th, 2021

14 mins 57 secs

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About this Episode

Public historian and writer Tegan Kehoe knows that museum visitors act differently around the same object presented in different contexts—like how the same visitor excited by a bayonet that causes a triangular wound in an exhibit of 18th-century weapons could be disgusted by that same artifact when it’s presented in an exhibit of 18th-century medicine. Kehoe, who specialises in the history of healthcare and medical science, is attuned to how objects can inspire empathy, especially in the healthcare context.

Kehoe’s new book, Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures, looks for opportunities for empathy in museum exhibits all around the U.S. Each of the 50 artifacts presented in the book becomes a physical lens through which to examine the complexities of American society’s relationship with health, from a 1889 bottle of “Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters” that claimed to cure a host of ailments to activist Ed Roberts’s power wheelchair that he customized to work with his range of motion.

In this episode, Kehoe describes how her work has helped her see tropes in the way museums tend to present medical topics and artifacts, how the aura of medical expertise is often culturally granted, and how living through the current coronavirus pandemic changed her relationship with many of the artifacts.

Image: Ed Roberts's Wheelchair, National Museum of American History. Treasures of American History online exhibition.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 96. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

Museum curator and historian Daniel Neff used to present tours in the Old Statehouse Museum in Boston, the site of the Boston Massacre in 1770. One tour was called “Weapons of the American Revolution” and went into gory detail of the carnage inflicted by bayonets and musket balls.

At the same museum, Neff also presented a tour called “Medicine and the American Revolution,” often featuring the same grizzly battle wounds.

As his colleague and today’s guest Tegan Kehoe recalls, Neff started to notice a difference between the way visitors responded to each of the tours.

Tegan Kehoe: He remarked a number of times that visitors who seemed otherwise temperamentally the same, sometimes even the same visitors would react very differently to hearing about a particular type of battle wound, depending on whether they were on the weapons tour or the medicine tour. And it seemed that people on the weapons tour were imagining themselves inflicting those injuries. And on the medicine tour, they were imagining being the victim and being the patient. And that's just such a powerful way of thinking about how people are relating to the content and museums and how people are relating to history.

Neff’s observation is featured in the introduction of Kehoe’s new book: Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures.

Tegan Kehoe: Hello, my name is Tegan Kehoe. I'm a public historian and writer specializing in the history of healthcare and medical science. I work at the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. And my forthcoming book is Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures, which is coming out from AASLH press in January.

Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures looks at the fields of medicine and public health through the lens of artifacts in museums and historic sites around the country. Kehoe’s day job at a museum of medical history, where she researches and writes museum exhibits, has helped her see tropes in the way museums tend to present medical topics and artifacts.

Tegan Kehoe: Museums, especially generalist museums tackling a medical history topic will often go for the gruesome because that is a hook for people. And I very much understand why exhibits tend to latch onto the gruesome and the macabre in medical history. But it can be a little bit narrow sometimes. And then the other thing that I see in exhibits especially of museums that do focus on healthcare or medicine is this narrative of progress. Of sort of the march of scientific progress always moving forward. And they'll go for sort of emphasizing the way in which medicine before a particular period was particularly primitive. And there isn't necessarily a particular set of imagery or exhibit style choices that goes with that the way there is with the sort of the more gruesome stuff. But I think this idea of “look how great progress is”, which I don't disagree with, but it's another way that it can be a very narrow way of looking at healthcare.

Each chapter in the book centers around a different historic artifact, arranged in chronological order to tell the story of American medical history. Chapter one is a wax model of a scrotum showing what was know as children’s chimney sweep cancer at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – typical of the models doctors and medical students used to study a variety of diseases in the eighteenth century. Chapter 24 is a bubonic plague pathology slide at a collection at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, from a cluster of outbreaks that happened along the U.S.’s Gulf Coast in 1920.

By grounding the narrative in objects, Kehoe is doing two things – first, copying the presentation style of most museums for artifacts that are scattered across the United States. And second, providing a window to a particular time and place. As Kehoe writes, “Looking at healthcare history through artifacts can help us see the people of the past as people, people who drank beer, waited for the nurse to read their high temperature, or hoped against hope that the new medication they took would prolong their life.”

Tegan Kehoe: Not being able to play with placement and just having those sort of static images, gave me a lot of freedom. So in the chapter about an infant incubator, I wasn't able to find any stories about a baby who might have been in that incubator, but I found a lot of information about a baby from a few years off from when that incubator was in use, but from the same county, really closely connected to the story. And I could trust the readers making it clear that this baby wasn't in this incubator, but I can trust them to sort of make that connection. So I was able to kind of go off on this in a way that I could do in a museum exhibit if I had room for it, but in a small object label, you wouldn't necessarily be able to. And so I could use that freedom a little bit to get the fuller story.

That fuller story, the story of American healthcare, touches on the societal ideas of who was worthy of a lot of care, and who was worthy of less care. And these societal ideas go both ways – Kehoe maps out varying levels of trust in medicine and medical institutions over time – something that medicine shares with museums.

Tegan Kehoe: I think that one of the similarities that's really striking to me is that in both medicine and museums, that expertise is–well, the expertise is real, it's based on study and work and certain methodologies–but that aura of expertise is kind of culturally granted.

Tegan Kehoe: And in both medicine and museums, it's culturally granted by the dominant, powerful culture within our society. It's white middle-class and upper-middle-class with certain educational backgrounds are the ones who trust doctors the most and trust museums the most. I don't have stats to back that up, but I know that the people who are most likely to be disregarded by either their doctor or by a museum exhibit are also the ones most likely to say, that's not for me. I'm not welcome there. I don't fit in there. Authority is messy when people feel like that authority is top-down and doesn't involve listening. And I think that's something that rings, throughout both medicine and museums.

Kehoe points to various movements in which doctors or self-styled doctors challenge established healthcare institutions, using newspaper advertisements or their own self-funded schools to create authority.

Tegan Kehoe: I have a chapter on 19th-century alternative medicine and there the problem or the perceived problem was that conventional medicine was thought to be really dangerous, largely because it was. If this is kind of the 1830s is sort of the era when the chapter begins, a lot of bloodletting, as in, cutting someone open and letting them bleed until they were weak. And that was thought to restore balance in the body. But the problem there was an ideological one for patients. Do we go with what doctors are prescribing or do we go with this street salesman who says that if I take the right herbs, I'll be able to treat myself and I won't need doctors ever again?

An artifact from the 20th century is the modified power wheelchair that belonged to activist Ed Roberts, now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Tegan Kehoe: I think one of my favorite objects in the book is the power wheelchair that belonged to Ed Roberts, who was one of the biggest pioneers of the disability rights movement and the independent living movement within disability rights. He became disabled as a teenager because of polio. And one of his memories of that experience that he used in talking about his experiences–because he was a very eminent public speaker who campaigned for disability rights–he would talk about a doctor telling his mother within his earshot that she should hope that he dies because if he lived, he would be nothing but a vegetable. And that ended up sort of galvanizing him, but this really disgusting level of prejudice coming from someone who was supposed to be helping him through the huge changes affecting his body at the time. And so he would have absolutely seen a doctor as an authority figure, but not an authority figure in the sense of someone to trust. That would be an authority figure in the sense of someone who might be doing gatekeeping, someone who might be changing your level of access to the care that you need.

Tegan Kehoe: He got a power chair while he was in college, so that he could have more independence. He sometimes related that it was so that he could go on dates without having an attendant chaperone the date because he needed someone to push his wheelchair. And at first he was told that he couldn't use a power chair because he didn't have the correct range of motion in his hand to be able to use the controls. And he realized that if they installed the controls on his otherwise commercially-built wheelchair backwards, that the range of motion he did have in his hand was completely adequate to operate the chair and so it was a customized chair in that way.

One of the last artifacts presented in the book is an ambulance damaged in the September 11th attacks, in the collection of the 9/11 memorial museum in New York. Like always, the artifact is the jumping off point to a much larger story–in this case, Kehoe details the history of emergency medical services–from transport of the sick during epidemics to battlefield ambulances during the American Civil War.

Tegan Kehoe: The artifact in this chapter is an ambulance that was on the scene, and that was badly damaged after the second tower fell. So the two EMTs who had been in the ambulance, they both survived. They were not in the ambulance at the time that it fell. But they were responding before the second tower fell. And I felt so incredibly lucky that both of them had given oral histories that were publicly available. And so I can read their experiences of that absolutely horrible day and being separated from their work partner for hours with no way to find out whether the other person was alive and just these absolutely gut wrenching, heart wrenching stories. And I think that 9/11 is a perfect example of that as well as we're always living through history, but that is a moment that everyone understood immediately that it would be historic.

The ambulance from 9/11 is an example of an artifact that was collected for a museum soon after it was used – I’m not sure what medical artifacts, if any, were collected after treating the wounded of the Boston Massacre.

It won’t be long, if it hasn’t happened already, that museums will display commercial and homemade masks from the current coronavirus pandemic along with banners thanking healthcare workers.

The coronavirus pandemic is not covered in this book – Kehoe started writing the book before the outbreak.

Tegan Kehoe: In terms of the actual writing of the book: about the second half of it was during the pandemic, which certainly changed my research process and also changed my relationship to the material a little bit, because I was writing about medical history while living medical history.

Tegan Kehoe: I mean, we're all living history all the time, but it's a little more noticeable during something like a pandemic.

But while the coronavirus pandemic is not covered in this book, you can feel your own experience of the pandemic in almost every artifact. Before the outbreak, I didn’t think much about how health and healthcare don’t exist in a vacuum. I didn’t appreciate how the decisions that patients, providers, researchers, and public health professionals make are not only informed by correct or incorrect understandings of current medical science, but also by a host of other factors.

Tegan Kehoe: People who are dealing with healthcare, whether they're dealing as patients or providers or researchers, or some combination, they're always looking for answers to questions. And what answers they come up with is going to be influenced by science, but also by culture. By what kind of trust relationship they have with the other people in the equation. By the technology that's available in the day. By so many other things.

Tegan Kehoe: And so when you're able to take a step back and look at kind of the various ways that people are involved with health care and with medicine holistically, there are a lot of common themes, but very few are sort of universal. And that idea of everyone approaching it with questions and there are a lot of influences that affect their answers is the kernel that I'm actually confident in saying is universal. And I think that that's also the place that my book really connects to the pandemic

You can pre-order Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures anywhere books are sold, but I recommend going to bookshop.org/shop/tegankehoe, where you can both support independent bookstores and check out her other writings.

This has been Museum Archipelago.

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