The following blog post was contributed by Bram Castle, who is a volunteer Docent at the Museum of Health Care. Bram graduated with BA in History from Trent University, and is currently working towards securing a position in heritage in the Kingston area. The Museum wishes to thank Bram, and all of its other volunteers, for the valuable work they do here at the Museum of Health Care at Kingston. Without their support, many of the Museum’s offerings would simply not be possible!
What is the purpose of a museum? To help people understand the past? To show items that most people would not see? To preserve and display articles from the past so that we can better understand our present? To give a fuller picture of how life used to be? A museum can be all these things, but a museum, especially one with a more modern focus, can be so much more.
The Museum of Health Care is housed in the former Kingston General Hospital School of Nursing residence building. This building, which would later be known as the Anne Baillie Nurses’ Residence, was built in 1903-4. For sixty-nine years, students lived in the residence while training to become nurses. They lived in small rooms, frequently having to share space with other nurses (picture 1). There were harsh restrictions on what private time they had and what they could do within that time, including very limited contact with members of the opposite sex. The KGH School of Nursing closed in 1974 and in 1995 the Museum of Health Care relocated to the residence building.
In the summer of 2018, I began volunteering at the Museum of Health Care working largely as a gallery attendant and assisting with events as needed. In mid-July, a woman and her grandson came to the museum to visit and see the museum. She had been a former KGH student nurse that had lived in the residence building close to the end of its time as a residence. She was delighted to be able to walk through the exhibits and see so many things that reminded her of her time here. She looked at the “For Service to Humanity” gallery, dedicated to the education, service and the history of nurses. While there, she was able to teach both her grandson and myself several things about the nursing uniforms on display there (picture 2). The style of uniforms that were on display were some of the same as what she had worn in her own time, and she was able to point out the differences between those on display from her own time as a nurse and those from an earlier time. Some of the differences were the red bands on the bottom of the nurse’s uniforms. These were present on many of the older uniforms to hide any blood splatter from early modern hospitals and prevent the sight of a nurse performing her duties in a blood covered uniform.
She was able to relate stories of her time in the residence to the display talking about just how tired she would be after working a 12-hour shift nearly seven days a week and recalled with fondness the relationship she had with her classmates. She related stories to her grandson about the room that she lived in while she was there, with her having less space due to the presence of her roommate. Even marking the differences between the room she lived in and the room that we had on display from a different era of the residence’s existence. The display room that we have is modeled on the c1930s style of rooms that the residence building would have housed. She was a student in the late 1960’s so the furniture that she lived with was slightly more modern in style than the items we have on display. She found the name of her old superintendent in the gallery where we have names of former residents and staff members on display. The same portrait of Anne Baillie as the Superintendent for the School of Nurses that was above the door out of the c1927 residence building when she lived there now sits right at the entrance to the museum. The authenticity and continuity of the building impressed her and managed to bring back memories that she could share with others. She was surprised to see the portrait of a much younger Anne Baillie along with her collection of medals for her service in the First World War in the Trench Mender’s exhibit about World War 1.
Showing people around a museum like this allows you to see the objects in the collection and on display through different eyes. Instead of seeing the various items, artifacts and exhibits as all a part of history, with the cold light of reason looking at them, you can see them through the memories and stories of someone who had lived through them. You could feel the history of her life and of the building flowing out, even coming alive around her. Anyone that was there that day could tell that the displays in the museum meant so much more to her because she had seen them before they were on display, and before they were a part of history. Museums are all about preserving memories, whether it is an oral memory, an object or a memory triggered by seeing an object.
On top of being able to see many of the exhibits through the eyes of someone who had lived through the world they described she was able to see the other exhibits about medical advances and health care that we had on display as well. She had a genuine interest in learning about the world of medicine before she joined the profession. This, combined with the enthusiastic enjoyment that her grandson demonstrated about the other museum exhibits, meant the rest of the tour was as enjoyable to give as the previous portions had been. The two of them showed particular interest in the museum’s Quack: The exhibit that cures all* and Vaccines and Immunizations exhibits. Vaccines and Immunizations was of particular interest to the two of them as they got to see an Iron Lung and they got to learn more about Polio, which was the disease that necessitated the invention of the Iron Lung. They also saw our exhibits about many of the other infectious diseases that we have managed to eradicate or partially eradicate through the use and development of vaccines. This includes smallpox, diphtheria, and whooping cough as some of the more devastating diseases. The combination of interest and joy that the former nurse and her grandson expressed throughout the entirety of the tour was a wonderful sight to see and an excellent example of what a museum can mean to someone.
Throughout the tour seeing the memories flow through her, the sparkle in her eyes that she had when describing the memories and the enjoyment that she received out of sharing them with her grandson was a special sight to see. It was also a great example of what a modern museum can do. A museum can be more than a place where people go to look at artifacts objectively, they can be a place for people that lived their lives to be able to remember, to relive, and if we are lucky enough, to share their stories with others.