Public History, Public Health

One of the things that's been fascinating about transitioning from working in museums that mostly dealt with political and social history around the American Revolution and early republic to working in a medical museum is that in the past three years, I have been exploring a whole world of resources that are now "must reads" and museums that are "must sees." It took me longer than I had intended to finally visit the Public Health Museum in Tewksbury, about half an hour north of Boston. In my defense, they are currently only open regularly two days a week, plus one Saturday a month, and only four hours a day, so it was harder than usual to plan a visit. In their defense, they are volunteer-run; I understand that this can pose challenges to being open regularly, and I applaud them for having both some evening and some weekend hours.

Image is of test tubes inside a wooden case . The tubes are flared at the base.
Mixed in with splashier items, like the iron lung and the 19th-century pedal-powered dentistry drill, 
are unassuming but important pieces of public health history like these tubes used in testing milk.
The Public Health Museum is informative, engaging, and a little bit quirky. It's clear that each volunteer has their own spin on the tour, which is true at almost any museum but perhaps particularly true here. Our guide was an animal lover who also volunteers with the therapeutic equestrian center on the hospital's campus. She went on a long tangent about the risks of misunderstanding what farm-fresh eggs mean, and encouraged us all to refrigerate our eggs no matter how fresh, unless we were absolutely sure they've never been refrigerated or washed. I always do refrigerate my eggs, but enjoyed learning about fresh eggs from her. Our guide's personal touch on the tour was also apparent when she was talking about the historical and present importance of safety testing and regulations for milk, in part because of the risk of bovine tuberculosis: she summed up this portion of the tour with the statement, "I like cows, but they are phlegmmy." I was reminded a little of my experience at the Boston Fire Museum, in which a volunteer said that the way to see the museum was to "plug into a person to get the stories," and a little of some of the volunteers I work with, who, if you're lucky, will tell you a funny story from their days as a nursing student or a resident.

Small wooden desk with some fliers, a clipboard, and a plaque with text and a man's photo.
The entry hallway was a bit confusing, but not because of this little desk,
 which features the guestbook but also a tribute to a late long-time volunteer.  

That said, the Public Health museum is fairly well set up for self-guided visits, as well. Overall, the labels are lay-friendly and informative. The museum has some problems that are pretty common especially in low-budget museums -- the labels aren't great for people with low vision, and even as the casual proofreader that I am, I noticed some cut-off sentences and other errors that I'm sure the volunteers are well aware of. On the other hand, I really appreciated the way the labels made the time frames clear. Tewksbury Hospital has at various times since its opening in 1852 contained an almshouse, a long-term care and psychiatric hospital, a site of isolation for infectious disease patients, a nursing school, and residential substance abuse programs. At many sites with a complicated or multifaceted history, labels discuss concepts very generally, and leave visitors with the sense that something happened "back then" without a sense of when "back then" was or of change over time. I do wish that both the volunteers and the exhibit labels were more aware of current practices for describing disability and disabled people, because I heard and read a lot of the kind of thing that I once thought was harmless until I learned better, such as calling wheelchair users as "wheelchair-bound" as if a chair weren't a freeing mobility device, and I wanted to hear more about historical patient experiences in the psychiatric wards rather than just historical theories about them.

A cardboard cutout of a cartoon bee, about three feet tall.
A mid-twentieth century public health advertising campaign,
Wellbee encouraged people to "be wise, immunize" once the polio vaccine debuted. 

The museum bills itself as the first museum in the United States dedicated to public health. I find it surprising that there aren't more -- it's such an important topic, rich with artifact and easy for visitors to connect to our own lives -- but I haven't heard of any others. It is well worth supporting and visiting, if you can make it there in their open hours (do check their website, as their hours change seasonally).