Where’s the mirror?

Posted on October 8, 2007 under history of medicine, minnesota, museums, public history

A few weeks ago, a group of visitors with post-polio syndrome toured the museum.  We generally take pride in our collections and stories about polio treatment:  Minneapolis General Hospital (one of HCMC’s ancestors) was the only hospital in the country to allow Sister Kenny to demonstrate and pioneer her muscular manipulation techniques for polio.  The Sister Kenny Institute in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis was originally the General’s pediatric hospital. Lymanhurst.  Dr. Harrington, the Chief of Medicine in the 40s and 5os, was not happy about giving up Lymanhurst for this Australian nurse but was overridden by other General docs, including Miland Knapp.  Sister Kenny, and the General’s faith in her, was eventually vindicated by the popularity/efficacy of her treatment.

In terms of material culture, we own a hotpacker, a device for steaming the wool hot pads that Sister Kenny used in her treatment, and two Emerson iron lungs.  One of the iron lungs is on permanent display in the Blue Lower Level Lobby of HCMC, and a volunteer used to let schoolkids climb inside. (The other iron lung, a guy from facilities told me last week, has been in the hospital facilities storage area for 27 years, right next to the lightbulbs.)

Back to the visitors with PPS.  When our volunteers showed the tour group our Emerson iron lung, their first question was:  “Where’s the mirror?”

For people in iron lungs, entirely enclosed in a huge metal cynlinder except for their heads, a mirror on the front of the iron lung was the only sensory connection with the outside world.  (Some pictures here.)  We had totally left it off.  The mirror allowed patients to see nurses, caregivers, family, friends, other patients.  It made a literally isolating experience somewhat social.  And this was what was missing from our iron lung display–the social, the lived experience of people who had spent years inside the iron lungs.

For history museums, and especially for medical history exhibits, where the relationship between patient and caregiver is usually overdetermined, we need to ask, “where’s the mirror?”  Where are the real people in this picture?  How can we connect to the community outside the museum?  How does this exhibit reflect our own vision of the past?  With the mirror, our iron lung tells a different story.

2 Comments on “Where’s the mirror?”

  1. Suzanne – Both of my parents had polio. Both have horror stories of what it was like. Neither, thankfully, were in iron lungs, but both had many operations and had to deal with a lifelong disability. There were lots of emotions surrounding polio at the time, especially the fear of catching it. My mom has told me that nurses could be very unkind to the kids. She was strapped down and put into a dark closet because she refused a treatment. She hated those hot packs because they were scalding. She watched a child die in her ward. The emotional stuff didn’t end when she got home because her father blamed her mother for giving her the disease and kids teased her for her short leg. The disease has colored her entire life. Thanks for posting about this.

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