Using Emotions in the Museum of Medicine: The Making of Doctors, Nurses and Patients

30 minutes

This paper explores the way in which heritage is used in order to create emotions such as empathy and indifference at the Museum of Medicine (Uppsala, Sweden). Specifically, we explore how empathy is evoked in relation to staff-members (such as nurses, doctors, and caretakers) and how indifference is evoked in relation to patients. To explore this issue we examine guided tours at the Museum of Medicine. Focus is placed on how museum educators, with the help of material culture and displays as well as personal and social memory, use the past to make meaning. Specifically, we examine the role that emotions, indifference, and empathy, play in the process. 

This study is based on qualitative ethnographic methods where we followed five guided tours in the Museum of Medicine. These tours were offered by two retired medical doctors acting as volunteers in the museum and two curators: one with a Master’s degree and one with a PhD in the history of thoughts. The guided tours were organized for university nursing and medicine students and were also mandatory in their programs. 

In exploring this, the paper focuses on two different kinds of emotions expressed in the in the guided tours: emotions connected to the patient (indifference) and emotions connected to the staff-members (empathy). In this, gender plays a vital role as it assists in pointing out how empathy and indifference are gendered, for instance, how empathy and indifference connected to men are expressed in ways differing from those of women. The paper also investigates empathy and indifference from the position of Robert McRuer’s (2013) notion of compulsory able-bodiedness. It assists to analyze how the able body functions as the norm and how all other bodies are cast as “other” in relation to that norm. We also use Judith Butler’s (2007) heterosexual matrix and R.W. Connell’s (2003, 2008) approach to masculine and feminine positions to explore this further. Additionally we explore the relationality of emotions as expressed by Sarah Ahmed (2004). Specifically we use her notion of “doing emotions” and the model of “sticky signs.” We explore how the museum educators are “doing emotions” such as empathy and indifference, with the help of signs and how some emotions “stick” and are boundary-making between the self and the other. In analyzing this we seek to identify the ideological and political processes at play when higher education appropriates museums and what consequences this has for students’ understanding of the profession and their future patients.

Center for gender studies, Uppsala University