Combining Resources: Medicine and Museums

Last week our class met with Bassett Healthcare medical students to watch Everywhere but Safe, a documentary on public injection drug use in New York State. Following the documentary we had a great discussion on the film. Two medical students had previously worked for one of the organizations mentioned in the film and provided a more detailed account of the organization and its efforts in combating unsafe public injection drug use. We also discussed ways in which the stigma about injection drug use could be broken down in order to offer better assistance to those suffering from this disease. A question was posed at the end of the discussion: What can museums do to help those suffering from drug addiction and other stigmatized disabilities? I was intrigued by this and decided to look at what museums are currently doing, or are not doing, to make a difference.

In June 2013 the American Alliance of Museums published a report titled Museums on Call: How Museums Are Addressing Health Problems. The report is broken into ten categories in which various museums are striving to make a difference. These categories include: Alzheimer’s, autism, disease prevention, health literacy, hospital outreach, medical training, mental health, military and veteran’s health, nutrition and wellness, and visual impairment. Each category includes several examples of specific exhibitions, programs, or art installations that aim to start a discussion on these issues. Partnerships with medical students, hospitals, and medical organizations are an important theme throughout the report. Through these partnerships, museums and health organizations create a symbiotic relationship in which both are learning from each other and creating meaningful spaces for positive change.

The importance of these relationships was evident in our brief discussion with the medical students. The medical students enlightened us on the medical aspect of drug addiction and we helped them understand how, as museum professionals, we would go about exhibiting the history of injection drug use in order to reach a wide audience. As a group we agreed that ending the stigma associated with drug addiction was the first step in making a difference. Collecting oral histories from people who have suffered or are suffering from drug addiction would be a powerful tool in humanizing these individuals. The stigma of drug addiction is often tied directly to thinking these individuals are criminals, dangerous, and not worthy of adequate medical care, but humanizing them through personal stories can help change these perceptions.

The Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, “invites graduate students to explore the connections between viewing works of art and patient care in the clinical setting and supports the development of best-practice clinical skills such as…active listening and deep observation.”[1] The Lowe Art Museum also uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which is a research based curriculum that uses artwork to develop the skills of future medical professionals. These types of initiatives between medical professionals and museums are a great way to enhance patient care and develop the skills that are critical in seeing those suffering from drug addiction as human beings. While our interactions with the Bassett medical students did not involve visual thinking strategies or art, the relationships that I fostered at the documentary viewing and discussion will help guide the future of my professional career. It really opened my eyes to the power of working with other institutions in your community and compiling resources in order to create meaningful change.

Sara DeTchon, a docent at the Lowe Art Museum, shows workshop participants various paintings on display. 


[1] American Alliance of Museums, Museums on Call: How Museums Are Addressing Health Problem. Accessed May 8, 2016.

Photo Credits:

Featured: Ending Stigma

Lowe Art Museum’s Visual Thinking Strategy


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