Heroines for our time: Shaping a 21st-century approach to the past at the International Museum of Surgical Science

IF/THEN: An Initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies
The International Museum of Surgical Science is an IF/THEN Gender Equity Grant recipient. Twenty-six ASTC-member museums received funding to launch projects aimed at increasing the representation of women and gender minorities in STEM across their museums’ content. This grant program is supported by the IF/THEN Initiative, a national effort sponsored by Lyda Hill Philanthropies to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers while creating a culture shift in how the world perceives women in STEM.

The history of medicine is a canon traditionally dominated by white, Western men. From famous firsts to the leaders of tomorrow, the images we see and the stories we hear of “physicians,” “scientists,” and “innovators” have changed very little, particularly here in the United States. In a world where women have constantly played catch-up, often simply to gain permission to practice the crafts they’ve honed over centuries without regard for recognition, the continued focus on men as the leaders and innovators of our society is a fundamental disservice to women and paints an incomplete picture of the past. For museums—leaders in the interpretation and presentation of these narratives for the public—shaping a well-rounded and inclusive story that visitors can see themselves in is the difference between remaining relevant and impactful and becoming an obscure relic of the very past we seek to understand.

Here at the International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS) in Chicago, Illinois, we understand what it means to grapple with such a reality. Our story starts in the early 1950s, when we were founded as a hall of fame by our parent body, the International College of Surgeons, and a place for the storage and display of a growing collection of medical art and artifacts. Although the museum has been a staple of the College’s educational outreach for the last 65 years, we have, quite literally, put men on pedestals in galleries like our Hall of Immortals, which features larger-than-life stone statues of medical greats from Imhotep to Joseph Lister commissioned by our founder, Dr. Max Thorek, as one of the Museum’s first exhibitions. Marie Curie is featured, but is the only woman included in the gallery.

Sketch of a museum's exhibit hall featuring statues.
A 1954 sketch of the Hall of Immortals at the International Surgeons Hall of Fame, now the International Museum of Surgical Science.

Recognizing this disparity was straightforward but the question remained, “What now?” What could we do about it without completely overhauling our galleries? The IF/THEN® Gender Equity Grant project proved to be an ideal first step in reframing our research, curation, and exhibition strategies. Armed with ASTC’s Gender Representation Toolkit, we were able to verify representational imbalances across a number of our permanent galleries and more significantly pinpoint areas of immediate need with quantitative data. Using photographs and biographical information from the IF/THEN® Collection, we drafted, designed, and installed a series of nine new panels spanning seven permanent exhibitions across three floors of the museum. In addition to improving gender representation, the introduction of 17 AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors in the context of their fields and specialties brings a contemporary element to historically focused exhibitions. A brand new tour on the museum’s smartphone app uses geolocating beacons to orient visitors in real time and provide them with direct connections to the IF/THEN® Collection through links to official profiles and videos for the women they see on our new panels.

A museum exhibit featuring artwork, an old operating table, and a colorful wall display featuring women in science careers.
Installation view of a new IF/THEN panel in the Museum’s Obstetrics and Gynecology gallery.

Using the resources of this collection, the IMSS was able to expand over half of its permanent exhibits and go beyond the framework of our founding to realize the possibilities of a more inclusive approach to storytelling. Acknowledging the limitations of curatorial and interpretational models cultivated a desire to grow as an institution and better equip our communities, regardless of race or gender, with the tools needed to understand their pasts and dream big for their futures. Visitors regularly comment on the Ambassadors’ unique interdisciplinary professions, adding an additional layer of inspiration for those seeking careers that transcend traditional roles and responsibilities. This grant project and its impact on staff and visitor mindsets alike has enabled the IMSS to turn a corner and begin bringing our exhibitions and programming into the 21st century. We encourage all of our fellow ASTC-member institutions, particularly those with a more historical focus, to take a look at the IF/THEN® Collection and experiment with its applicability to your own models of community engagement. If we feature this diverse group of Ambassadors, then we might just inspire a whole new generation of physicians, scientists, and innovators to come!

For more about the International Museum of Surgical Science’s work with the IF/THEN® Collection, including links to our ongoing digital lecture series, please visit our project homepage.

This blog post was contributed by Carys O’Neill (she/her). At the time of this work, Carys was the Assistant Manager of Exhibitions and Development at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, Illinois.

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