The DC Region’s Medical History

DC, Maryland, and Virginia have a number of museums that deal with the history of health, medicine, and drugs. Below are examples from each of the three jurisdictions:

District of Columbia

The building on 7th St. NW in the heart of DC, near the National Archives, was slated for demolition in 1996 when General Services Administration (GSA) employee Richard Lyons made a pretty cool discovery while inspecting the premises. On the third floor, he saw an envelope hanging in the slats of the ceiling, hinting at more objects to encountered in the attic above. As Lyons explored the attic, he found long-abandoned and forgotten artifacts from Clara Barton’s time in the building, living in one small room and using the bulk of the third floor to run her office for locating missing Civil War soldiers.

After Lyons, and others who understood the historical significance of the building, fought to preserve the rowhouse, the space was restored and opened to the public as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. Today, visitors can see old medicine bottles and a piece of a rubberized tent that could be put up for shelter, read examples of the letters sent by and to Clara Barton, feel the difference between two walls in her bedroom (one the original wall of the building, and one a makeshift partition that was put up to decrease the size of her room and increase the working space), and learn about Barton’s other roles in life from Angel of the Battlefield to founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara Barton's bedroom in the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum

Clara Barton’s bedroom in the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum


One of my Weekly Museum Visits was a trip to Beall-Dawson House, run by the Montgomery County Historical Society, where I walked across a snowy lawn to see a house all decorated for a Christmas from the days of yore. Although the guided tour of the many rooms of the house was the main component of the experience, I also got to see the tiny one-room Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine, also located on the premises. (In its heyday, it had been on a different street in the core of Rockville.)

Dr. Edward Elisha Stonestreet practiced medicine for the latter half of the 19th century, commissioned by the Union Army as a surgeon and continuing to treat patients until his death in 1903. The museum’s objects reflect the changes in medical practice, and the world, during the decades of his service, from the once-sworn-by use of bloodletting as medical treatment to the invention of the telephone.

The exterior of the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine

The exterior of the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine


Like the Stonestreet Museum, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum was one of my Weekly Museum Visits back in 2010. The historic pharmacy, located in Old Town Alexandria, is now open to the public as a museum, where visitors can see implements used in the manufacturing of 19th century drugs and medicines. Like today’s CVS and Rite Aid, the apothecary sold items like toilet paper and sunglasses in addition to medicine.

As for the substances themselves, some are the kind you might put in tea or cupcakes (vanilla, allspice, cinnamon). Some seem to come straight from Harry Potter’s Potions textbooks (unicorn root, dragon’s blood) and are highlighted in the museum’s Harry Potter-themed events. Others include marijuana and opium.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Thank you to those who gave me tours of these three sites!

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Two Visits to MICA

A friend and I visited art exhibits at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) twice in 2016, each time in a different building. On the first occasion, we did not research in advance what exhibits would be on display, beyond checking the location and hours.

Upon walking into the Fox Building to see the MFA in Studio Art Thesis Exhibitions, the first piece of art we saw was a large piece of fabric, embroidered with words in cursive. The imagery was of Strawberry Shortcake and her adorable cartoon cat; the words were nothing I can repeat here.

Fountain outside MICA's Fox Building

Fountain outside MICA’s Fox Building, July 2016

The rest of the exhibit was similar: though the other pieces did not feature Strawberry Shortcake, the art took the form of embroidered fabric. Sewn onto many of the pieces were the responses of women who had filled out a survey for Jacqueline Bishop, artist behind the Female Sexual Desires Project.  Other embroidered works by Bishop provided a sort of abstract visual to go with the words.

We had not known we would be seeing this particular exhibit, with its detailed and intimate language, but luckily, I was visiting with one of the few people with whom I would not find it awkward to visit such an exhibit.

The awkwardness surrounding the subject matter was a common thread in the respondents’ words. As the artist wrote in a Huffington Post article on what she learned from the project, “the third thing I’ve learned about female sexual desires: they remain sublimated under imagery of flowers, for example, and women were often afraid of their desires, and were even afraid to voice their desires because often what women wanted was so raunchy that it ran counter to the ‘good girl’ image that so many of them were raised with.”

Some of the survey responses incorporated into the art were difficult for me to read: on certain pieces, the shade of the fabric used for the embroidery and the shade of the background fabric did not provide enough contrast for my eyes to discern the words easily, or I found the embroidered cursive hard to decipher. Others had a layer of fringe fabric in front of the words, which I was tempted to push aside in order to read (don’t worry, I didn’t touch the art). It made me wonder if the artist herself felt the awkwardness, if she was putting another layer between the risqué words and the curious reader.

In addition to Bishop’s art, we saw works by six other artists in the galleries. The most memorable for me was Lindsey Bailey’s #bangagitatetransitrepeat, an installation full of color and sound and a variety of materials.

Later in the year, the same friend and I visited MICA, this time entering the Fred Lazarus IV Center to see the Baltimore Rising exhibit. The art filling the space reflected various artists’ responses to the protests and unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray after an unbuckled “rough ride” in police custody. Though the pieces were inspired by this recent tragedy in Baltimore, they were imbued with a sense of history, with references to slavery, the Confederacy, redlining, and other historical examples that continue to shape and influence contemporary times.

We saw Baltimore Rising in early November, just days before the 2016 election. I remember the timeframe clearly for a few reasons: my friend’s birthday had just passed, and I had brought a cupcake for her. A SafeTrack surge on the Red Line (shutting down a segment of the local public transportation that would bring me to Union Station, where I then took a commuter train up to Baltimore) replaced trains with shuttle buses. And on the shuttle bus that I rode, a man stood at the front facing all the passengers, blasting our not-yet-awake ears with slogans like “Don’t get stumped! Vote for Trump!” for the entire duration of the bus ride.

Outside MICA's Lazarus Center, November 5, 2016

Outside MICA’s Lazarus Center, November 5, 2016

Like me, Cara Ober (founding editor of BmoreArt) visited the exhibit shortly before the election. Her review of the show incorporates how the context of the election informed her understanding of the exhibit:

When I first visited Baltimore Rising, about a week before the election of Donald Trump, I had more criticisms of this show to offer. There was a sense of self-satisfaction that rubbed me the wrong way in places; there are gaps in curatorial vision where some works feel less relevant to the Baltimore uprising and more related to general issues of race, history, and the justice system.

But today, now that I am living in Donald Trump’s America, I am filled with nothing but gratitude that this show exists….

Personally, I found the historical perspective in the art illuminating, as in the case of Sonya Clark’s Unravelled – three loose balls of thread, red, white, and blue, from a deconstructed Confederate flag. Other works in the exhibit included sculpture, paintings, and photography.

The exhibition of students’ thesis art reflects MICA’s commitment to the “education of professional artists and designers, and to the development of a collegiate environment conducive to the evolution of art and design.”  MICA’s mission statement also references “the vital role of art in society,” and Baltimore Rising demonstrates the vital role of past and current societal events in art.


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Photos: Infinity Mirrors

A few photos from my immersion in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn.

phalli's field


obliteration room

final kusama collage

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Throwback Thursday: Sacred Places

In the spirit (hehe) of exploring religious museums and sacred places, below are just a few examples I have visited during travels in years past.

Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio (Rome, Italy)

Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio, photographed in 2015

Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio, photographed in 2015

In summer 2015, one of the many churches my father and I visited in Italy was the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio (Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius). Among all the cathedrals and chapels we visited on that vacation, a few stood out, like the famous St. Peter’s and Sistine Chapel of Vatican City, but also some of the lesser-known sites. Sant’Ignazio, which first opened in 1650, was memorable for the optical illusions employed in painting its ceilings.

Andrea Pozzo attempted through his frescoes to make the ceiling look higher and more grandiose than it actually is, with a colorful scene of St. Ignatius and other figures ascending into heaven via a cloud-filled sky. The church also features a “dome” that is actually just a flat circle.

Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, photographed in 2015

Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, photographed in 2015

Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue (Newport, Rhode Island)

That same summer, my family also visited Rhode Island to see my mother’s stomping grounds: her first two houses, her first workplace (an ice cream shop), her high school, the church where my parents got married, the library where she wrote her name in a book as a child. While my father and siblings explored the little shops of Newport, my mother and I attempted to visit Touro Synagogue. She could remember a school field trip during which she was awed by the light inside the building.

Alas, when we arrived, the synagogue itself had closed for the day, but we were able to visit the Loeb Visitors Center. Its exhibits explained the history of the first Jewish settlors in Newport, from Portugal, in the 1600s, and the construction of the synagogue, which was completed in 1763. A common theme of the exhibition space was the idea of religious liberty – an ideal that was in many ways not realized, but that was especially manifest in Rhode Island in comparison to the other colonies.

This Is the Place Heritage Park, photographed in 2006

This Is the Place Heritage Park, photographed in 2006

This Is the Place Heritage Park (Salt Lake City, Utah)

Many lifetimes ago (i.e. 2006), I visited This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. My visit mostly consisted of walking around and looking at the monument, which commemorates Brigham Young’s 1847 arrival at the location with fellow Mormon pioneers.

However, the park’s website lists a plethora of activities beyond just viewing the monument itself. Emphasizing FUN (in all caps), the website provides details on pioneer games and chores, farm animals, a Native American village, and mini-train rides.

The Awakening Museum, Santa Fe, NM, photographed in 2005

The Awakening Museum, Santa Fe, NM, photographed in 2005

The Awakening Museum (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

In 2005, a friend and I took a trip to New Mexico, where we immersed ourselves in The Awakening Museum that then existed in Santa Fe. (The building later turned into a cooking school, after apparent marital and financial troubles experienced by the painter of The Awakening, Jean-Claude Gaugy, and his then-wife.)

The Awakening was a single work of art that filled the walls and ceiling of one room, surrounding the viewer with biblical imagery. Outside was a quiet and peaceful meditation garden. Although the museum is no longer there, and I don’t remember the specifics of the audio tour all these years later, the memory of the vivid-yet-tranquil museum experience has stayed with me.

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Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017

As I visited the Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017 exhibit, I kept returning to the question, “Who is this for?” Initially, this question was mostly logistical, as I tried to visit not just museums and outdoor installations, but also churches during hours when they were open to the public, but when I would not be disrupting services.

I felt the “Who is this for?” acutely when I talked to a janitor who suggested that I come back on Sunday morning to see the work of art on display in the church. “Won’t I be disrupting services?” I asked a bit gapingly. At that point, someone affiliated with the church walked by, and in the end, I was let in to the sanctuary. The object I sought to view was off to the side, requiring that I walk past all the row of pews and then cross in front of the altar. I am very glad they let me in when they did, because there is no way I could have looked at the piece on Sunday morning without disrupting services.

I sensed the “Who is this for?” at the Church of the Epiphany, where I peeked through a gate at the art while walking the labyrinth, surrounded by the watchful eyes of people sitting and lying in the pews. The downtown church’s function as a daytime refuge for the homeless has perhaps increased due to the three-year closure of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library just a few blocks away. While I was inside the church, I thought, Out of everyone in this room, I have the least greatest need to be here.

The “Who is this for?” question worked in my favor at the Washington National Cathedral, where a mention of “Station 14” at the visitors desk gets your $12 admission waived. Meanwhile, at one museum, I neglected to see in advance that it would be closed on the day I visited, but I still got to see the art through a window. And at one church, I wandered around the open, airy building until I found someone who could play the video for me.

Collage of the 14 sites in Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017

Collage of the 14 sites in Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017

The Locations

The exhibit is made up of 14 stops (13 in DC and one in Virginia). There are four famous, secular memorials (MLK, FDR, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the Marine Corps War Memorial, all managed by the National Park Service) which, full disclosure, I did not take the time to visit again this month, since I had seen them plenty of times before.

Three works are in art museums – two pieces are at the National Gallery of Art (one in the West Building and one in the East Building) and one is at the American University Museum.

Two more Stations are art installations outside the office buildings of religious organizations: the United Methodist Building and Catholic Charities.

The remaining five are inside churches: the Washington National Cathedral and Church of the Epiphany (both Episcopal), First Congregational United Church of Christ, Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart (Catholic) at Georgetown University, and St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Out of those 14, two were sites of my Weekly Museum Visits (American University Museum and the MLK Memorial). One was at an alma mater of mine (Georgetown, though my recent visit to the chapel was maybe my fourth time ever on the main campus). Two were places where I’ve walked labyrinths.

The Works of Art

Keeping the nature of the different venues, and my own personal experiences (or lack thereof) with each of those locations in mind, I spent time this month visiting ten of the sites and listening to the website’s brief podcasts on all 14. I did not have a lot of prior knowledge of the Stations of the Cross tradition, beyond a pretty basic understanding of the story being told. As an outsider to the faith who celebrates a secular Christmas and Easter, I’m a bit of a Nativity scene fangirl, but I have never been particularly drawn to art portraying the crucifixion or surrounding events. While I recognize the great significance of the story to Christianity, the depictions I have seen at art museums and old churches have not been where my eyes or mind want to linger.

Some of the pieces in Stations are examples of those crucifixion-themed works of art that I would usually not look at for long: Hans Memling’s 1475 painting Saint Veronica, the spaces dedicated to Saint Joseph of Arimethea. Other installations address 20th and 21st century issues that many may not want to linger on as well: homelessness, poverty, racial segregation, genocide, forced migration, war, torture, and mass incarceration.

The Audience

The exhibit’s website, in its description of the 14 works, uses phrases like “reminds us,” “encourages us,” “address us,” and “hardens us.” These words raise the question, who is “us”?

At one level, the exhibit is, as stated on the website, “a pilgrimage for art lovers.” Certainly the works of art, which take the form of painting and sculpture and video and larger-than-life monument and more, are interesting in their own right.

Yet it is clear that Stations is not merely an art tour, but also an experience to be understood through a religious lens.

The website defines the Stations of the Cross as “a 14-step Catholic devotion that commemorates Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth as a man.” A United Methodist told me that she understands Stations of the Cross to be “a Catholic thing.” Indeed, two of the sites of the exhibit (Catholic Charities and Dahlgren Chapel) are Catholic.

Though Catholicism might be the particular denomination that first comes to mind – or to Internet search results – in response to the phrase “Stations of the Cross,” the participating sites in this exhibit also include Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches. I am not knowledgeable enough to speak to the relative importance of the artistic iconography to different sects within Christianity; however, the story itself is of course essential to the religion as a whole.

In a Huffington Post article on the exhibit, United Methodist writer Jeania Ree Moore asserts the role of Stations as a call to fellow Christians not just to reflect but also to take action: “As with the ancient Stations of the Cross, a straightforward accounting of what is transpiring in a situation of injustice does indeed shock and shame….As the Lenten theme of penance suggests, suffering and shame disclose truths (some about our own complicity) that should motivate us to act.”

But the exhibit is not intended solely for Christians. As stated on the website, Stations “resonates…for people of various faiths and backgrounds.” Moore writes, weaving in the words of Stations co-curator Rev. Dr. Catriona Lang, “Separate from Easter, Laing identifies the Lenten season as one of the ‘most Christian’ and, perhaps fittingly, also one of the most open and accessible to non-Christians.”

Laing’s fellow co-curator, Dr. Aaron Rosen, is Jewish and is a professor of art and religion. In his podcast on Barnett Newman’s series of paintings (itself known as Stations of the Cross), he remarks, “…it’s interesting that Newman, as a Jew, felt that…the best iconographic tradition in which to speak to these tragedies [the Holocaust and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] was a Christian one. In choosing the story of Jesus Christ, and particularly the episode of the Passion, Newman was following in the footsteps of a number of important Jewish artists in the modern period.”

Religious diversity can be found among the curators and artists of Stations as well as its visitors. Indeed, freedom of religion is a core theme of one of the displays: the Dahlgren Chapel’s cross was made by the earliest Catholic settlers in Maryland, representing their freedom to worship openly in their new land.

The organization that put it all together, Coexist House, first conceived of a modern Stations of the Cross art pilgrimage last year in London. Coexist House is a London-based effort to build a “landmark, which aims to become the leading global centre for transforming public understanding of the practices and perspectives of the world’s religions” – a museum of interfaith dialogue and learning.

When it comes to asking “Who is this for?” about Coexist House itself, the website states, “Our audience spans all ages, religions, and educational backgrounds. The house will be at once a reflective and spiritual space and an active learning institution, open and accessible to all – believers and non-believers.”

Was Stations accessible to all? The free admission to all 14 sites (including the waiving of the normal admission price at Washington National Cathedral) made for financial accessibility. Limited and/or unclear hours for some locations posed some logistical difficulty, but I did succeed in seeing everything I set out to see.

Accessibility in other senses may be harder to gage. People have varying comfort levels in museums, inside churches, on university campuses, and among crowds at monuments that are on every tourist’s checklist. Art with a religious theme is necessarily accessed in different ways by people within or outside the religion. Ultimately, I found Stations to be most accessible to me insofar as it draws attention to the sufferings of our world today, which call to everyone regardless of one’s faith.



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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Coloring page from Celtic Designs Artist’s Coloring Book, sold at the Washington National Cathedral Gift Shop.



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Coloring and Facts

This month, museums and libraries worldwide have used the Internet and social media to reach virtual audiences everywhere as participants in two online campaigns.

The first, #ColorOurCollections, was spearheaded by the New York Academy of Medicine Library. It officially lasted the week of February 6 through February 10, but the free coloring books from museums and libraries are still available online to download, print, and transform with crayons and markers. All the images come from the institutions’ collections, as they “invit[e] their followers to color and get creative with their collections.”

Everyday artists can use these coloring pages to add hues to two water dragons from a Thai story cloth at the Immigration History Research Center Archives, fill in abstract designs from the Smithsonian Libraries, and bring scenes from Shakespeare plays to life with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s offerings. The images, and our ability to color them as we wish, bring forth human creativity and imagination, as in this decidedly unrealistic illustration below that I colored. Even the scientific images provided by botanic gardens and medical libraries can be distorted from reality with fantastical choice of colors or artistic license in adding one’s own details.

Coloring page from the James Madison University, Special Collections, colored by me. Excerpt from “The Marriage of Kitty” by Harry Persons Taber.

#ColorOurCollections testifies to the role museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions play in drawing audiences into made-up stories and imaginary worlds, with examples such as art, music, and everything in the fiction section. These cultural sites invite visitors to ponder what if, to consider trying their hands at their own creative works, to reap the therapeutic benefits of coloring or of relaxing among art (even while also recognizing the ways that uncomfortable or disturbing art and stories can challenge us to think).

One week later, museums and libraries everywhere again took to social media, this time to contribute to the #DayOfFacts (February 17, 2017) on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. According to the campaign’s mission statement, the purposes of the day were to “show the world that our institutions are still trusted sources for truth and knowledge” and “reaffirm our institutions as welcoming places for everyone.”

The campaign speaks to a particular historical moment in which lies are sold as “alternative facts,” the most powerful leader in the world dismisses the press as “fake news,” and actual examples of fake news are a growing concern online. While museums play an important role in fostering imagination, as in #ColorOurCollections, they are just as vital as sources of historical scholarship and scientific discovery.

In the words of participants themselves: “One of the most important sources of facts in our society is a free and independent press” (Special Collections, Archives, and Rare Books at the University of Missouri Libraries). “A fact is an indisputable observation of a natural or social phenomenon” (The Field Museum). And finally, “facts matter, that information matters, that the open and free exchange of ideas matters” (Gustavus Library).

The facts that emerged on #DayOfFacts were a glorious mix of information pertinent to the debates and misconceptions of our time, data about the benefits of libraries and museums, text about particular objects in collections, and just some fun trivia.

There were no facts about cats serving as naval captains, rescuing other cats from the ocean with life preservers, and getting married. However, there were facts about real cat species along with so many other topics under the sun:

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