The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 was the deadliest outbreak of the disease in history. It is estimated to have killed between 50-100 million people worldwide, and unlike seasonal flu outbreaks it was the fit and young who were most at risk. The end of the First World War exacerbated the effects of the Spanish flu, as ships carried large numbers of people swiftly around the world, often in overcrowded conditions - perfect for spreading disease.
The Florence Nightingale Museum, in London, England, decided to commemorate the centenary of this devastating pandemic by creating an immersive exhibition and public engagement programme focusing on the experiences of nursing during the 1918 pandemic. The museum is named after Florence Nightingale, a social reformer and the founder of modern nursing, and so it felt right for the museum to look at the pandemic from that angle.
The war had caused a shortage of doctors, particularly in hospitals at home in Britain. It was therefore nurses who often bore the brunt of caring for the sick during the pandemic. Often succumbing to the disease themselves, these women showed immense bravery in the face of the suffering of their patients and families. It is their story the Florence Nightingale Museum wanted to explore and share.
Video: The Florence Nightingale Museum
A touring version of the exhibition would also go to a number of regional venues around the UK. The decision was taken to target libraries in addition to museums as potential touring hosting venues. This meant that we would be potentially widening the reach of the project and engaging beyond the traditional museum audiences.
The project’s key objectives were to:
Increase public engagement with the subject of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, which has largely faded from public consciousness in recent years.
Use a touring component to particularly engaging non-traditional museum audiences.
Highlight the vital contribution made by nurses during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic
Make links between the 1918 influenza and the contemporary risks posed by influenza and other viruses today.
Image: The Florence Nightingale Museum
The project was led by the Florence Nightingale Museum, with Holly Carter-Chappell as the project lead for the Museum team. Academic subject support was provided by Hannah Mawdsley, a PhD researcher at Queen Mary University London. Hannah contributed to the interpretive strategy for the exhibition and collaborated with the project team regarding engagement strategies, and object and interactive displays.
The main components of the project were an immersive exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum and an associated public engagement programme, including a series of talks, family activities and a ‘museum late’.
Hosting partners for the touring exhibition include George Marshall Medical Museum, Worcester, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives, Derbyshire Libraries and Liverpool Medical Institution. In addition to providing the core touring exhibition content, the Florence Nightingale Museum was also able to work with some of the touring venues to create their own additional content, exploring local experiences of the 1918 Pandemic.
In the initial stages of developing the exhibition, it was felt that the key to creating an engaging and thought provoking exhibition was to find a balance between putting across the sheer staggering scale of the pandemic through facts and figures, while immersing visitors in the human stories and experiences of those who lived through Spanish flu. With this goal in mind, combined with a small exhibition space, the decision was taken to situate the exhibition within a WW1 field hospital tent, similar to those in which Spanish flu patients would have been nursed on the Western Front during World War 2. Mirrored walls and two central bed frames were used to give visitors the sense that they were in a huge influenza ward. These beds served a dual purpose, by also providing a blank canvas for lights and images to be projected onto as part of the exhibition.
Digital content commissioned for the exhibition included an animation telling the story of Spanish flu from the perspective of Dr Basil Hood and his staff at the St Marylebone Infirmary, London. As a doctor in London during the outbreak, inspiration was taken from his detailed accounts of the pandemic, which are now held by the Wellcome Library in London. Also, an oral history film was commissioned exploring the contemporary risks posed by both seasonal influenza and a potential new pandemic, through interviews held with staff from the Infection Control Team at Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, and England’s Chief Nurse Viv Bennett.
Image: The Florence Nightingale Museum
A ‘scratch card trail’ where visitors could follow a characters story through the pandemic, scratching off foil panels to reveal a life event at certain points in the exhibition and eventually finding out if they survived or not, was developed in the hope of increasing engagement with the exhibition from family audiences, but has in fact turned out to be very popular with visitors of all ages.
Evaluation and lessons learnt
The exhibition will run until June 2019, with the touring version running until autumn 2019; so we are still only part way through the project. So far anecdotal feedback from visitors has been very positive. We are evaluating the exhibition using visitor survey data collected by our team of Museum Assistants and volunteer explainers.
This immersive approach to exhibition design and interpretation has been a step change for the Florence Nightingale Museum, and a useful pilot project as the museum prepares for Florence Nightingale’s bicentenary in 2020.
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