Learning from the Collection

Imagine that you are a museum object. Perhaps you are a rare book from the late 19th century, or a chair that an important member of government sat on in the 1820s. Your life as an object is long, and the lives of all those around you are short by comparison. Assuming you are properly cared for, your life as an object will go on for many years past those of the people who created you. Museum professionals know this to be true, as we handle objects in our collection for what amounts to just a few minutes by comparison. Despite this, our goal is to make sure that these objects continue to carry on long after we have left. My name is Laura Althorpe, and I am interning with The Infirmary and the George Marshall Medical Museum. I came to Worcester as part of a master’s programme at the University of Leicester of which I am currently a student. As part of my degree, I am required to complete an eight-week work placement at a museum of my choosing. Eight weeks is an extremely short amount of time in the grand scheme of things. It is likely that the wonderful and interesting objects I’ve come to know here will not even remember me in a few months’ time; that’s how quickly I’ve stepped in and out of their lives. I might not have affected them much, but they have certainly affected me.


Not being at all scientifically inclined, I have a fascination for medical history. There is something visceral, jarring and human about objects or records pertaining to medical treatment. One of my favourite things about this placement has been getting a close up look at some of the objects in the collection. My first favourite object is this trephine from the late 1800s. If you look at the circular base, you can see a sharp point protruding from the bottom. The function of this object was to bore small holes in the skull, a treatment still in practice to relieve pressure build-up on the brain. You can see this object on display at The Infirmary and I highly recommend getting a good look at it up close. On an average day it’s hard to imagine there would ever be a reason to drill a hole in someone’s skull, so this object makes me feel a bit squeamish and intrigued all at the same time.


My second favourite object is the child’s pneumonia jacket from about 1850. Whilst doing an evaluation of our textile collection I came across this object. A grant through the Textile Society (UK) allowed the museum to create a replica of the jacket, which is currently on display at the George Marshall Medical Museum. Seeing the original was extremely exciting for me and very moving. I love textiles and I find clothing especially interesting. Clothing is so personal and can tell us so much about the wearer as it can signpost style, class and socioeconomic status. Seeing this jacket was also a bit emotional. It’s so tiny, and as interesting as it is, it’s sad to think that this was intended for a small, sick child to wear. The perforated leather on the inside of the jacket is to allow the child to sweat but not get cold and chilled. For more information, visit this link.    


Aside from my work with objects, I have been working on a wide variety of tasks all across the museums. One major activity has been creating and administering a new survey to gather information on people living in the local West Midlands community. We want to know who in our local community is not visiting the museums and why. Through gathering this information, we hope to make the museums more accessible to a wider range of people specifically based on what you, the visitor, want to gain from a museum-going experience. If you have not yet taken the survey or shared it on your favourite social media platform, please do so with the link below: 

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My time at Worcester Medical Museums might have been short, but the impact that these small museums and their team of dedicated staff has had on me will influence my career for a long time to come. If you’re ever in Worcester, pop in to either museum for a fascinating glimpse of medical history in Worcestershire and beyond. Between the objects, the knowledgeable staff and the historic setting, you won’t be disappointed. Check back next week for another post about some more of the collections’ interesting (and slightly ghoulish) objects.

For more museum fun follow me on Twitter @ljalthorpe