This week, LHSA interns Claire and Judith have had a couple of afternoons out, to visit Edinburgh University Anatomical Museum, housed within the Medical School Building on Teviot Place and the Royal College of Nursing Archive, on South Oswald Road.
On Tuesday afternoon, together with musical instrument interns Luca and Michela, we were fortunate to be given a behind the scenes tour of the Anatomical Museum, by curator Malcolm MacCallum. Home to an impressive collection of historical and anatomical specimens, the Museum was originally founded and developed by the Monro dynasty. The collection grew significantly in the late 19th and early 20th century, under Sir William Turner who was both Professor of Anatomy from 1867 to 1903 and Principal of the University from 1903 to 1917. Today, the Museum houses newer acquisitions alongside objects from the original Museum, with the whole collection comprising around 12,000 objects, illustrating the story of 300 years of Anatomy teaching at the University. More information on the history and collections of the museum can be found here, where you can also download an app for a virtual tour!
The entrance hall to the Anatomical Museum, image taken from the website above
This visit afforded a new perspective on the curatorial and conservation challenges of maintaining such a collection. In conversation with Malcolm, we were able to get an insight into some of the ethical challenges of caring for a collection which includes human remains. Human remains have a unique status within museum collections. They have the potential to make a contribution to the public good, through research, teaching and, when appropriate, display. However, because of their origin, there is a particular responsibility on the Museum to consider the way they are acquired, curated and displayed. Today, a number of interested parties may claim rights over some human remains. These include genealogical descendants, cultural communities and scientists. Institutions holding remains have to evaluate these potentially competing interests and acknowledge the complex legal and moral considerations. There is a need to deal sensitively with these issues and to draw a careful balance between the attitudes and beliefs of different groups. It was fascinating to be able to talk to Malcolm about these challenges.
On Thursday afternoon we visited the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Archive, which is based in Edinburgh. The Archive holds collections for the entire UK organisation and includes corporate records dating back to 1916, as well as a wealth of personal papers, oral histories, photographs and objects.
It was a pleasure to meet Fiona Bourne and Neasa Roughan, the Archivists at the RCN, and get an insight into what they do and see some of the treasures they hold. The RCN is run by members and the decisions taken at a governance level reflect what members have asked for. The corporate archive ensures that these decisions, along with all the work undertaken to implement them, is recorded and is an immensely important collection. Our favourite part of the archive though is definitely the personal archive, including the personal papers of individual nurses from 1822 to the present day and over 700 oral history interviews with nurses.
Personal archives are a wealth of information on day-to-day life. Corporate archives might show high level institutional history but personal stories, whether on paper or audio-tape, allow historians, researchers and curious individuals to really know what life was like for a nurse. These archives give us an insight into what their work involved, how they lived, what they did in their spare time, and what life was like in different hospitals and different wards across the country. For an organisation such as RCN, their personal archives can help them show how the work they do has affected the working lives of nurses over the last 100 years.
The RCN archive is a great example of how diverse collections can be, and how important each type of collection is. Without the corporate archive the RCN would lack accountability, and would have no reference to when or why past decisions had been made or actions taken, and without the personal collections the RCN would have less information on how their decisions or actions had affected the lives of the nurses they aim to support. We really enjoyed our visit to the RCN and are looking forward to learning even more about the history of nursing through the coming weeks with LHSA.