A unique staycatin activity in our backyard

by Stella Donovan
photos by Julie Wiatt

In a season marked by beach vacations, warm nights, and a brief hiatus from textbooks, the National Museum of Health and Medicine might seem like a dubious destination. Located on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, there are over 25 million objects in the museum, and nearly all of them are related to sickness, injury, death, and dying. Certain things featured in the museum are not for those with weak stomachs, though several examples of those can be found amongst the anatomical specimens. So why pass a summer day there that could be spent on the sand? The National Museum of Health and Medicine tells stories, both modern and historical, of our country, our wars, and the architecture of our human body.


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“Wounded in Action: An Art Exhibit of Orthopedic Advancements”, a
temporary exhibit organized and produced by the American Academy of
Orthopedic Surgeons, consists of sculptures, photographs, and paintings
on the theme of war wounds and their aftermath. Created by professional
artists, doctors, or soldiers themselves, the pieces merge the
emotional and physical experiences of losing a limb. The art provides a
contrast to the more scientific or historically based exhibits.
Visitors will also have a chance to become artists themselves through a
series of workshops conducted on July 21, July 28, and August 4. After
a short discussion about the exhibit, workshop participants will have a
chance to sketch various forms and technologies featured in the museum.

Trauma Bay II was first erected in Balad, Iraq, serving as the
emergency medical tent for the U.S. Air Force base. It functioned as
the main resuscitation bay and received patients in dangerously
critical conditions. jw192Lincoln_lifemask.jpgA visiting
congressional delegation
that more American lives were saved and lost within its flaps than any
other location in the Iraqi conflict. After an alternate medical
facility was opened in Iraq, the tent was transferred to the museum and
installed just as it had been in the Middle East. Visitors can walk
through the main entrance and see a large, scuffed slab of the concrete
floor that supported countless numbers of soldiers and medical staff.
The exhibit has become an emotional site for military personnel and
civilians alike.

Moving from the emotional to physical realms, a large portion of the
museum focuses on bodies. “Visibly Human: Health and Disease in the
Human Body” displays examples of healthy and diseased organs from all
of the bodily systems. Seeing a picture of a smoker’s lung in a
textbook hardly compares to seeing one suspended in a case of
preservative goo. In the same room, “From a Single Cell” provides
specimens of the human form from the embryonic stage to five years of
age. From human to technological development, the exhibit “Resolved”
traces the scientific progress made in identifying war dead, while
“Battlefield Surgery 101: From the Civil War to Vietnam” shows surgical
advances made in the military over the past 150 years.

jw216sculpture_trauma.jpgjw235prostheticleg.jpgThere is one distinctly higher-profile surgery highlighted, a fitting
choice for a museum with an extensive Civil War exhibit. Though much is
known about the events leading up to the assassination of Abraham
Lincoln, less is written about the actual attempt to save his life. The
exhibit details the desperate surgery that followed the shooting, and
includes several priceless historical artifacts. Next to the eerily
life-like plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands are the bullet that
lodged in his brain, the probe inserted into his head, and small
shavings of his skull.  Visitors can read the entry about his death in
the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, placed
alphabetically in the lengthy volume like any other war casualty. The
detailed account concludes with a sentence that, though clinical and
detached, has a forlorn ring to it even today: “The protracted
death-struggle ceased at twenty minutes past seven o’clock on the
morning of April 15th, 1865”.

Putting aside its other merits, the National Museum of Health and
Medicine is worth a visit merely for the sheer diversity of its
contents. It is difficult to think of another place that would display
baby skeletons, nineteenth-century surgical devices, and Paul Revere’s
dentistry tools all in the same room. It is an unforgettable
experience. Unless, of course, your brain ends up behind the glass.