Human Curiosities: Expanding the Social Relevance of Medical Museums


There are over 240 museums displaying medical heritage in Europe, and more than 37 million visitors have attended anatomical exhibitions such as Gunther von Hagens’ Körperwelten/Body Worlds. Despite the enormous public interest these numbers represent, many museums housing historical medical collections are struggling to cope with the fragility of their collections and the cost of maintaining them amid decreasing public funding for museums.

Yet collections of medical heritage are potentially useful for tackling some of today’s most pressing social and public health challenges. Moreover, European governments are increasingly turning to museums to undertake such work, in response to aging populations and declining budgets for social welfare. However, stakeholders at medical museums disagree on the role of their institutions in contemporary society, on the capacity of audiences to understand complex or sensitive medical issues, and on the most effective exhibition strategies.

This Veni project will analyze current medical museum exhibition strategies to identify dominant narratives as well as marginalized histories, and investigate their implications for health and wellbeing. I will focus on four areas where medical museums could make a significant impact: mental health, infectious diseases, sexuality/reproduction, and bodies of difference (addressing race and disability). As this research is of direct relevance to museum practitioners, it will be developed in collaboration with medical museums, and will result in a Heritage Lab demonstrating interpretive strategies for medical heritage, an online tool for museums and their audiences, as well as an open access journal article and a book. The project will provide the first detailed analysis of exhibition strategies across a range of European medical museums, and the first in-depth study to specifically consider the role of medical museums in promoting health and wellbeing.


Project number


Main applicant

Prof. dr. M.S. Parry

Affiliated with

Universiteit van Amsterdam, Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, Geschiedenis, Archeologie en Regiostudies

Team members

Prof. dr. M.S. Parry


01/09/2016 to 30/06/2020