The Struggle with Normalcy

During my placement at the George Marshall Medical Museum, I got the chance to curate an exhibition. The theme is the struggle with normalcy; how people throughout history have defined normality and its consequences.

In the first week I had to decide what theme I wanted to work with. For inspiration, I read a few historic books from the GMMM’s collection. One book was titled ‘the story of plastic surgery.’ It was written in 1952 and it told an interesting story about how plastic surgery has evolved from prehistory until the 1950s. The author seemed to believe that striving for perfection and a normal appearance would become the ultimate goal of the plastic surgeon. I think that he was right and I wanted to confront people about it. Many of the people who come to the Charles Hastings Education Centre, which houses the GMMM, are doctors, nurses or other medical professionals - a very interesting audience for this kind of exhibition.

 Various surgical tools and other items. 

Various surgical tools and other items. 

Normality is not only related to appearance and plastic surgery. Normal behaviour and mental health are closely related. There were interesting stories about women being declared insane in the Victorian era for doing or saying things that were not normal. For example, a woman who wanted a life outside the domestic sphere would be labelled as hysterical. We have objects in the collection of the GMMM that are related to mental health such as the Powick Hospital Digest, ECT equipment and articles on LSD trials. For the plastic surgery story, I assembled a surgical set for a minor cosmetic operation. The operation was removing a benign tumour from the upper arm. I did this together with Mrs Margaret Ingman, a volunteer at GMMM who was a great help. I hope she enjoys seeing the objects in the case.

 Before installing new exhibition

Before installing new exhibition

I had to take down the previous exhibition as well. That was pretty cool because I hadn’t done anything like that before. The objects of the previous exhibition were all loans so I went through the process of returning the objects to the owner and doing all the necessary paperwork. Afterwards, I cleaned the case. There was a lot of wax stuck on the case. That is where problem solving skills come in handy; with a ruler I got everything out.

Normality is not always negative. It is a great tool for diagnosing illnesses, either physical or mental. I wrote about this in the informative texts that go with the exhibit. Finally, I wanted to do something that would attract attention to the case. It is made of glass so Louise suggested I write on it with a white glass marker. The texts I wrote are all lines from the historic books or from literature. Source material included the short novel ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘the Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath.   

Check out the Museum's Temporary Exhibitions page to find out more.

 Finished product will be on show at GMMM until the new year.

Finished product will be on show at GMMM until the new year.

Lauren Romijn, MA student placement, University of Leicester