Infectious Diseases in the Reading Room

11 December 2015

Our Object and Archive sessions in the Reading Room are intended to start a dialogue with a group of visitors about a given subject. Sol and Loesja tell us more.

That headline was a little bit alarming, wasn’t it? There aren’t really infectious diseases in the Reading Room. Well, there are, but only metaphorically. Sensationalist headlines are just one of the things we talk about when approaching the topic of Infectious Diseases in our Object and Archive sessions, which take place in the Reading Room. We also cover pustules, poetry, deification, vaccination and odd cures.

Object and Archive sessions are a collaboration between the Library and Collection, both of whom share the Reading Room: a hybrid exhibition-library-events space. Like the Reading Room itself, Infectious Diseases participants are encouraged to share ideas, experiences and expertise; we feed off this input whilst drawing on objects in that room and others within our collections.

Our sessions are a sort of conversation with props, in which we say and learn as much as you. But why the subject of infectious disease? We don’t want to ogle gory photographs of grubby skin or vindicate alarming tabloid headings depicting bloated tales of death and suffering. Though we do approach such artefacts within our session, we’re not trying to shock or disturb.

We chose infectious disease because it’s medically interesting, historically pertinent, culturally fascinating and all-affecting. Once we started delving into this world, we stumbled into a Narnia of facts, artefacts, objects and images that concern the lives of almost everybody, past and present.

[object Object]

Some of the materials used in the session.

To put it into context: how many people do you know who have contracted an infectious disease? Have you? You might never have suffered from smallpox, leprosy or the bubonic plague…but what about influenza, chlamydia, meningitis or chickenpox? When did it happen and how did it feel? What have you been vaccinated against and how do you remember that experience?

By bridging this conceptual gap between big, scary, life-threatening diseases and garden-variety, often childhood catch-alls, we can compare the cultural, emotional, ethical and spiritual reactions we as humans have to infection as a whole.

Although we indirectly discuss most of the diseases we’ve mentioned so far in this blog, our session focuses on just two. We’re not going to tell you what they are though, because the aim of our session is for you to work with us and each other to find out for yourselves: using and exploring the material surrounding you in the Reading Room, the knowledge of other people in the group, your own intuition and the research we ourselves have done. We’re pitting you against two mystery diseases – but who will win?

[object Object]

Chinsei Hachiro Tametomo was exiled to the island of Oshima. There, according to legend, he repelled the demon of smallpox who was preparing to invade the island.

If you want to guess which two diseases we feature, you’ll need some clues. Here’s a symptom jumble. Try to put these symptoms into two groups:

  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Pustules
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Malaise
  • Joint pain

Harder than you think isn’t it? And just to make it harder, some of the symptoms of our two mystery diseases overlap and also correspond with other infectious and non-infectious diseases. You’ve also probably experienced at least one of these symptoms without ever having come into contact with either disease in your lifetime.

We’re not medical experts, but from our research we’ve gained some great insight into the medical, scientific, historical and social aspects of infectious disease. We know the difference between an RNA and a DNA virus. We know about the history of vaccination trials and techniques and their integration into contemporary medical practise. We know how an outbreak is mapped, prevented and potentially eradicated, including various preventative techniques, such as contact tracing and quarantine. We know all this stuff so we can explore the ethical and social implications of this knowledge with you.

[object Object]

Some of the materials used in the session.

However, our knowledge is merely a back-up for what you can tell us. People who’ve attended our sessions have told us some really amazing things. We’ve met nurses, doctors and medical students; people whose ages range from single to triple digits; visitors who have come into close contact with life-threatening infectious diseases as well as those who have never caught one (including chickenpox) and even people who have had vaccinations for infectious diseases we no longer vaccinate against.

Every session is different and we never fail to learn something new about infectious disease. For instance, we’ve learnt that:

  • The easiest and quickest way to contract an infectious disease is through the eyeball (coincidentally, it is also the quickest way to get drunk);
  • A scientist contracted one of our mystery diseases after putting his lunch in the same fridge as a medical sample;
  • There are 300 variant strains of the flu virus; and
  • An early cure for infectious diseases like flu was 12 pints of ale and a daily house airing.

One thing we love to do in our sessions is debate the cultural significance of infectious diseases for certain communities. We explore artistic representations of the diseases at microbe level, comparing photographs, microscopic images, sculptures and educational toys, like giant fluffy microbes.

Participants can leave their mark by filling out these prescriptions telling us what they’d like to be vaccinated against.

We also discuss how infectious disease can influence a belief system, for instance by creating deities as guardians of the disease; or societies dedicated to Anti-Vaccination Thought. As we’ve said, infectious diseases fascinate us because they are all-affecting; not just because they affect all people, but because they can affect all parts of a person’s existence.

So if you want to delve into the ethically tricky and medically diverse world of Infectious Diseases, you know where to come. All you need are open eyes and if you have a little bit of insight, then all the better!

Sol is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Loesja is a Library Assistant at Wellcome Library.

These events aren’t advertised on our website, but they do appear weekly on the Reading Room notice board. The idea is that they pop up on the day (but not necessarily every day) and that they are a bonus for visitors. The Reading Room events are an experiment for us, hence the nature of the programme.