Healing Histories: An Exhibition of Medical Marvels and Curative Curiosities.

Yesterday I attended a pop-up exhibition at the Central library in Manchester displaying some of the rarest objects from The Manchester Museum of Medicine and Health archives 1. The exhibition was curated by students in the Art Gallery and Museum Studies Master programme, with help from staff at the Museum.

“Healing Histories explores the curious and inspiring past of health and medicine, celebrating discoveries, exploring the unappreciated and highlighting important objects that tell our collective stories.” 2

Exhibition space.


The exhibition was divided into six different themed areas:

  1. Medical Milestones.
  2. Unpacking the Doctor’s Bag.
  3. Toils of Labour: A Brief Social History of Childbirth
    and Women’s Health.
  4. School of Curiosities.
  5. Healthcare at Home: Fact or Fiction?
  6. Take Care.

I really enjoyed the exhibition and found the objects on display fascinating. The six distinct areas were well laid out and visually engaging and there were plenty of knowledgeable students around to answer questions as well as informative, well designed leaflets and postcards. Here are some of my highlights:


Leather Gladstone bag c.1910-1920.


Unpacking the Doctor’s Bag looked at the iconic image of the doctor and his Gladstone bag. It let us explore the world of the twentieth century doctor and the medical instruments they took with them on home visits.


Forceps – 1791-1876.


I also really enjoyed the Toils of Labour exhibit which consisted of obstetric and gynaecology instruments from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It explored the changing relationship between male doctors and female patients during childbirth in the nineteenth century.

“The emergence of modern obstetrics and gynaecology in the newly industrialising western cities of the 19th century is inseparable from the invention of new forms of male heroism: the gentlemanly, urban physician was now expected to apply not only force but also reason to the body of his patient. However, for the woman in childbirth, the first experience often remained pain. Which now without the exclusive, female solidarity of the “midwife”, often had to remain silent.” 3


The Embryonic Development of the Human Eye Lens – Late 19th Century.


The School of Curiosities exhibit included a rare set of late nineteenth century plaster models which represented the growth of the eye in a foetus from 37 days to six months. They were made by Dr Otto Becker, a professor of ophthalmology in Germany. They were made as gifts for honoured guests that attended the Heidelberg ophthalmology congress in 1888.


Lantern slides – late 19th / early 20th Century.


Lantern slides were used by medical lecturers as teaching aids, they were the precursor to modern digital presentations. The slides on display were used by Dr William Stirling in his lectures whilst he was a professor of Physiology at Victoria University in Manchester from 1886-1919.


Nurse Annabelle.


The Take Care theme was based on a fictitious nurse called Annabelle Bolland who wrote a diary spanning her career in nursing. It cleverly introduced the items on display in an interesting and unique way.

Nurse Annabelle had her own twitter account which I followed in the weeks leading up to the exhibition. Her tweets included excerpts from her diary and witty, amusing insights.

“Do you like my profile pic? My friend Margaret did it! I wish Instagram already exsisted in the 20th century.
#takecare #nurse” 4

The way the event utilised social media to generate interest was one of the most fascinating and enjoyable aspects for me. I first heard about the exhibition on twitter5 two months before it took place. Every few days I was given a sneaky glimpse of an object that would be going on display asking me to guess its use or purpose. The tweets also gave an insight into what it was like to curate and install an exhibition. It was a brilliant way to advertise the event and I was really excited to see it by the time the day arrived!

I’m really pleased this exhibition gave me the opportunity to see some of the rare and wonderful medical artefacts housed in The Manchester Museum of Medicine and Health archives, especially as the museum doesn’t have any permanent displays or galleries and isn’t open to the public. This brilliant exhibition has whet my appetite and I would love to have to opportunity to explore the archives more!



  1. Manchester Museum of Medicine and Health website (http://sites.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/museum).
  2. Healing Histories website (https://healinghistories.wordpress.com/).
  3. Quoted from exhibit display.
  4. Quoted from the Nurse Annabelle twitter account (https://www.twitter.com/@Nurse_Annabelle).
  5. Healing Histories Exhibition twitter page (https://twitter.com/HHistoriesPopup).