Bioethics and the museum

An envelope on which is written "Private Matters. Do not open until 10(ten) years after my death. Percy Grainger, May 10, 1956"
Private Matters: Percy Grainger's writings about his personal affairs remained sealed until 1972.

Postgraduate students in the subject POPH90270 Bioethics and Public Health used the Grainger Museum in a seminar that stimulated ethical thinking through explorations of the life story of Percy Grainger, as presented by objects and images in the Museum.  

I was keen to bring the students to the Grainger, as an avenue for them to develop their ethical thinking outside the classroom.  The museum experience invites them to recognise ethical ideas in objects that aren’t explicitly framed as ethically complex, just as they will need to do with situations in their professional practice in public health.  It was fascinating to see the different ways that the students responded to the objects in the museum.  Some of the students made connections with key ethical concepts that we’ve discussed in class, such as paternalism and autonomy.  Others were stimulated to reflect on the relationship between stigma and public health practice, or the role of subjectivity in ethical analysisDr Rosalind McDougall, Course Co-ordinator

Museum experiences like those the Bioethics students experienced is an effective pedagogical approach that stimulates students’ moral imagination, increases their awareness of their own emotional reactions to ethical issues and enhances their capacity to recognise moral dimensions of clinical experiences.Pedagogical encounters with cultural artefacts, in the context of “Object-based learning” have been shown to powerfully engage learners, because the objects themselves “carry stories” of real people and make the abstract past tangible and current.  

Rebecca Garden, in the Health Humanities Reader, writes that narratives explored through material culture are an invaluable means to promote a more critical and nuanced understanding of social contexts of health, ‘particularly the power relations and social norms in the clinic that contribute to disparities and discrimination, as well as the social factors that contribute to disease and disability’.

Engagement with narratives through the arts and material culture establishes ‘foundations for empathetic understanding, as well as a respect for patients’ authority, by raising questions about assumptions, stereotypes, language, and the nature of representation itself.’