Author Archives: webteam

Living Medical Traditions

Our fifth floor gallery, The Science and Art of Medicine, touches on issues as emotive as abortion and third world health – so it is no surprise that it has been the subject of comment over the years.

A recent blog post and subsequent comments on Twitter have breathed life into an old debate about the presence of content relating to living medical traditions in the gallery.

First some basic scene setting for those who haven’t visited the gallery – it is made up of three sections – 2 large areas called Modern Medicine and Before Modern Medicine and a smaller area called Living Medical Traditions which was updated in 2006. Within this section there is a small area devoted to ‘Personal Stories’ which show how people choose to use medical treatments from different traditions.

Personal stories explanatory text

Explanatory text from the gallery

On this subject we have an official statement from the Museum:

In our ‘Living Medical Traditions’ section of the Science and Art of Medicine Gallery we take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present. For example, we include the use of acupuncture but do not say that acupuncture ‘works’. We consider that these ‘alternative’ medical practices are of considerable cultural significance. We also recognise that some may consider the inclusion of these practices in the Science Museum controversial.

As with all Science Museum galleries independent experts were consulted when developing this gallery. In this instance advice was sought from leading academics in the history of non-western medical traditions as well as practitioners and users of these traditions. We maintained editorial control throughout and resisted equating local medical practices with the western medical tradition.

And now some comments from a curator who worked on the exhibit:

In the Personal Stories section of ‘Living Medical Traditions’ we chose to present the patient / practitioner perspective and describe their experiences. With this approach, we felt it would be clear that it was the patients and practitioners who had confidence in the efficacy of these other traditions, rather than the Science Museum. We certainly did not feel that by displaying such things in the Museum we were endorsing them. For example, another controversial exhibit – the Euthanasia Machine – is on display on our ground floor, but by displaying it we are not advocating assisted suicide. We appreciate that our visitors will have their own views.

In the same way that the gallery presents the medicine that the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Renaissance physicians and so on and so on believed in and practised, we are doing a similar thing for TCM, Ayurveda etc which happen to still be practised today.

On the specific subject of homeopathy, we felt that the approach was very careful in explaining that the belief was with the users, but not us.

There’s a snapshot of the display here.

One final, rather cheeky point – critics of homeopathy are keen to point out that ‘Anecdotes are not data’. Quite right – and on that note we’d would love to encourage people who haven’t actually visited the gallery to come and see it for themselves. It’s free and if it stimulates this kind of debate then it can’t be all bad…