The National Museum of Health and Medicine is a fascinating nightmare
By SADIE DINGFELDER | The Washington Post | Published: January 18, 2019
WASHINGTON — With all the Smithsonians and the National Gallery of Art closed by the federal shutdown, now's a good time to visit D.C.'s lesser-known museums. That's why, last week, I headed to the National Museum of Health and Medicine — a Department of Defense-funded institution that's escaped the shutdown (so far) because it's run by contractors.
Though this museum once sat on the National Mall, it's now located more than a mile from the nearest Metro subway station in an obscure corner of Silver Spring, Maryland. That's really for the best, because this museum is essentially a collection of spare body parts. Floating brains, a woman's disintegrating face, children's skeletons, conjoined fetuses in a jar — these are not things a casual tourist wants to encounter, especially right before lunch.
As I took in these morbid artifacts, I found myself wishing for a docent — someone to explain what I should be gleaning from these bits and pieces, and maybe how they helped advance medical research and education. Alas, tours at this museum are self-guided, and most of the body parts on display have minimal labeling. This left me with lots of worrisome questions. For instance, as I gazed at a jar of preserved male genitals, complete with wisps of pubic hair, I wondered how they ended up in the hands of the U.S. military, and what I — and other, more medically focused folks — could learn from looking at them.
For the first hour of my visit, I considered these questions alone, but then a family of five arrived. The leader of the crew, a future physician assistant, told me she brought her parents, aunt and nephew there because the Mall's museums were closed.
"Look, Mom, is this real?" said the nephew, who had found the (real) skeleton of a 5-year-old child. "He's got a big ol' cabbage head just like you," his mom replied. "What happened to him?" the boy asked, which was my question too.
One display near the back of the museum provided a little context. This museum, said the wall text, was started at the beginning of the Civil War to help train field surgeons and advance military medicine. By the end of the conflict, the museum had some 4,000 skeletal specimens depicting all kinds of injuries, which the U.S. government then used to create an eight-volume publication that became an important reference for physicians worldwide. The collection, which has since grown to about 25 million artifacts, including bones, organs and medical devices, is still used for research today, the exhibit concluded.
The many shattered bones and bruised brains on display struck me, primarily, as evidence of the terrible cost of war, but several exhibits also emphasized the skill of military medical personnel. For instance, one gallery that featured a piece of floor from an Iraq war field hospital noted that 98 percent of the people who arrived at this tent hospital alive left alive, despite grievous injuries.
At the center of the museum, I found its most famous artifacts: the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, fragments from the president's skull and the bloodstained shirtsleeves of one of his physicians. Nearby text described the path of the bullet and the useless probing of his doctors — all interesting stuff, but I can't say I learned much from this exhibit, especially when compared with similar ones at Ford's Theatre and the National Museum of American History, which delve sensitively into the details of Lincoln's assassination and its political aftermath.
Right before leaving, I found the most random exhibit in a very random museum — a case containing, among other things, a gilded skull, the skeleton of a monkey that returned alive from an early U.S. space mission, a slide of a tumor extracted from Ulysses S. Grant, a couple of James Garfield's vertebrae, and a square of lace made by a mental patient at Saint Elizabeths, depicting her hallucinations.
I can only imagine the conversation that led to this dadaist assemblage.
Curator 1: "Where should we put the space monkey?"
Curator 2: "There's room next to the presidential tumor."
Curator 1: "Makes sense to me!"
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that the National Museum of Health and Medicine exists. Even as the collection's scientific uses are supplanted by medical imaging and other modern technology, it remains a fascinating, and perhaps important, glimpse into the gory legacy of war.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF HEALTH AND MEDICINE
2500 Linden Lane
Silver Spring, Maryland 20910