In the late 1800s, Canadian doctors were only just beginning to discover and practice germ theory. For the rural doctor, this meant changes and major gains in all the fields he practiced- dentistry, obstetrics and much more. For the first time ever, instruments were being sterilized and hands well-washed. Dr. William Anton Jones, of Clandeboye, Ontario was amongst these rural doctors on the cusp of medical evolution.
This year, my public history class culminated our year’s education with an exhibit all about Dr. Jones and his rural home practice at Fanshawe Pioneer Village. The exhibit is due to open officially in the spring of 2015. Fanshawe Pioneer Village (FPV) is a “living history” site, meaning it takes a snapshot of history and brings the visitor right to that snap shot with its exhibits, interpreters and atmosphere. What this often means is very few text panels and more work for museum staff and volunteers who dress up in time-period costumes and pretend to be of the era. Living history museums have become quite popular as they are credited with making history more enticing and accessible for the average person. However, what visitors may not understand is how much extra work goes into creating each exhibit. For us, this was a great experience in understanding just how much work curators do.
We started by separating into three groups of four, each assigned to a room- either the parlor, pantry or home office. My group worked to recreate a realistic rural doctor’s office. For us, this meant a great deal of research on not only Dr. Jones but on medicine of the late 19th to early 20th century. We explored topics including but definitely not limited to: dentist tools, travel time for rural doctors, early surgery, typhus, obstetrics and gynecology, what expenditures doctors made, how the office was integrated into the home, what art would hand in a doctor’s office, stitches and much, MUCH more. At the end of the project, the four of us had compiled pages upon pages of medical research and an index of antique medical instruments so long that it could stretch from here to your grandma’s house.
Next we selected our artifacts. Fanshawe Pioneer Village, Western Medical Collection and Museum London all helped us in this regard (thank you). While this might seem as simple as looking at the research, seeing what you need, what you had, and accessing the gaps for acquirement…it’s not. The biggest challenge about this stage of the exhibit was that each of the artifacts would not only be subjected to the climate of a normal museum but to the elements of an open air one. Although within the building itself, the Dr. Jones house is old and not protective of artifacts the way a traditional museum would be. For example, the curator has no control over the temperature or humidity. Because of this, our group had to communicate with each of the collection curators to figure out what could be displayed, what could not and what could be reproduced. For example, William Anson Jones had a bag in the FPV collection with his initials sewn into it. It was deemed to fragile for the exhibit and so a volunteer reproduced it for us.
Next, we began the planning of the design for the office. Using Google Sketchup, we created a design of exactly how we wanted the office to look. It included each instrument (and there were many), piece of furniture and things as small as pens. This had to be one of the most tedious parts of the project.
The final part of the project that our class worked on was an interpretive plan that in the end was over 200 pages. This tells the history of each room, describes the instruments and artifacts, talks about things like germ theory and the average day of rural doctor. This is also where all our research is shown off. Although it was a very laborious process with lots of back and forth edits between us, the other groups, our professor and the curator at FPV, I have to speak for all of us when I say that we’re pretty proud of the result. Now the interpreters will have a wealth of knowledge when they speak to visitors about the Dr. Jones House.
We had a sneak-peek opening of the exhibit a couple of weeks ago. We were a bit nervous after handing these plans that we had worked so hard on over to the museum staff to create the physical exhibit but… wow. The people at FPV did a wonderful job interpreting and fulfilling our vision and I think it looks awesome (if I do say so myself). So thanks to FPV, my classmates and our professor!