Living Traditions at the Science Museum

How would you feel if I told you that the Science Museum says that homeopathy and acupuncture, as medical treatments, are no more effective than drumming or divination? Satisfied? I hope so.

In my previous post touching on the Science Museum’s exhibits I attempted to make a general point about what themes and approaches can and should be included within a science museum (by which I mean a museum that has object collections, as opposed to a science centre, which generally does not). Naturally, because this was sparked by comments responding to criticism of the Science Museum’s Living Traditions display, the debate has continued to focus on this particular exhibit and the manner in which complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) should be dealt with in particular. Additional posts have since appeared e.g by @noodlemaz here, Stephen Curry here and David Waldock here, that have added further images and descriptions of the display. I had begun to be won over to the view that it was perhaps somewhat hastily or thoughtlessly put together and, especially after reading Stephen’s thoughtful account, I did not think that I would have more to add, although for my own satisfaction I went to see The Science and Art of Medicine yesterday.

I am glad that I bothered, because what I found was something more sophisticated and satisfying than I had come to expect. Stephen raised many interesting questions that could have been further explored, but let’s remember that a museum display simply cannot cover everything and that most visitors tend to wander through, focus on a few objects, read very little text, and pass on. I think that, given these limits, the Museum chose an appropriate set of themes to consider and raised some particularly interesting points.

Firstly, readers need to be aware of how the gallery as a whole is introduced. On entering there is, on the right, a small display on ‘Henry Wellcome and his Collection’. This makes the important point that was entirely missing from the first posts and comments on this topic: the Science Museum has care of these important collections and a duty to make use of them in displays. Their nature invites historic and anthropological treatment. On the left is a plan of the room and an introduction to the three sections, ‘Before Modern Medicine’, ‘Modern Medicine’ and ‘Living Medical Traditions’. Each has an introductory text panel and a case with three emblematic objects. For the first there is a bust of Hippocrates, lead crosses and a 17th-century mortar and pestle; for the second, a stethoscope, a microscope and models of sanitary ware representing efforts in public health; for the third we have a Chinese acupuncture model, a Shangro rattle and a clay Shirodhara pot used (I think) for oil in the Ayurveda tradition. I think these cases make it pretty clear to visitors what’s what, and where the science, and successful treatment and prevention, lies.

What else might they have done? It would have been plainly wrong if they had included things like cupping, bleeding and purging within their historic displays (as they do) and not shown that they continue to be practiced. If they had focused purely on the role of CAM in Britain then they would have ignored the global approach that appears elsewhere in the gallery. Focusing purely on the scientific evidence would not have made good use of the object collections, would have made the display much less rich and contextual than the rest of the gallery, and would have made understanding the choices of anyone represented within the display more difficult.

Some specific points:

1) Is the Science Museum promoting CAM? No. It describes some of the other medical approaches that exist, mainly (except in the recordings on the interactive screen and one of the “personal stories”) in other countries. It is clear that the whole exhibit is based on the premise that these traditions are not effective. Does anyone really believe that the Science Museum is saying that faith healing, divination, community meetings, song or dance are effective means of countering disease? These are placed alongside homeopathy and acupuncture, so, in the context, their effectiveness is made pretty clear. In fact, much more clear for most casual visitors than if evidence was cited in the text. Likewise, all of these are placed outside the narrative of the development of biomedicine, antiseptic surgery, public health etc.

2) Does the exhibit include advertising? No. I would be extremely surprised if there were anyone who was prompted to contact any of the individuals represented within the display, and I would be amazed if anyone who looked around them thought for a minute that the museum was promoting these approaches any more than they were promoting the pre-19th-century approaches they display elsewhere. Certain practitioners and their places of work are named in the recordings, in order to be clear about sources and and the fact that, while most of the exhibit focuses on other countries, varieties of these practices are carried out in this country (this very city) too. I cannot imagine that anyone has ever whipped out pen and paper to make a note of these names and they are not distributed in written form by the Museum. One label within the section on various African traditions points out an email address on a piece of packaging. Anyone who seriously suggests that they are doing this in order to advertise the company is being disingenuous. This 2005, foil-wrapped packet of herbs stands alongside similar products collected by Henry Wellcome between 1880 and 1920 to show that what some people think of as ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’ has been subject to enormous change over time and distance.

This is a key point within this exhibit. They have chosen to challenge simplistic notions of what these traditions are. Skeptics should be pleased – they clearly show that, although there are old roots, claims made by practitioners to represent ancient traditions are far from clear cut. The Museum does this throughout the display by showing how cross-fertilised they are, how mixed with modern medicine, how intercut with modern advertising and marketing. Did anyone think that the Museum was also advertising Clipper teas – which appear twice – or Geri Halliwell’s yoga video? I think these were well chosen to show how aspects of these traditions have become widely accepted, but shorn of what serious practitioners would consider essential elements of the practice as a whole. The displays clearly show that all sorts of spiritual beliefs and other, slightly off-putting, practices like purging go alongside yoga, acupuncture and herbal medicine.

3) Is the display uneducational? No. It has lots to teach, although it has annoyed people that the lessons of this particular display are not scientific facts (though they are actual facts, in that real people said and did these things, and they pertain to how scientific medicine is perceived in various societies). I was particularly impressed by the decision to show examples of these traditions being mixed: homeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine in India (the former, as it says, a ‘scientific’ import by 19th-century western missionaries); conventional medicine and faith healing in Nepal (where, “when the hospital opened doctors expected biomedicine to become the Sherpa’s first choice of healthcare. Instead the people of Kunde were reluctant to abandon their traditional medical beliefs – a situation that continues today”, one reason for which includes a belief that dying in hospital rather than  can hinder the soul’s progress); African herbal medicine and conventional medicine in Uganda (where, despite the patient being a trained health inspector at the local hospital, he chooses a traditional healer, in part because of the respect that these individuals have within their community, providing social care that, presumably, the government does not); Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and conventional medicine in China (where one individual and his treatments integrate both approaches); and acupuncture and conventional medicine in the UK (here, as has been noted, the display refers to the on-going debate about “the place of acupuncture within the NHS”).

All of this aided my education and understanding,.I have had to reshape any ideas I might have had about distinct and unchanging traditions, and I have learnt a lot about what people in other parts of the world understand as medicine, and the importance of regulation in shaping this. Elsewhere in the gallery I recommend the section on National Health Services, where the lack of hospital and medical services in rural areas of Africa, India and China are made clear. Next to this is a section on Third World Medicine, which relates successes in public health and, for example, in eradicating smallpox, but also demonstrates why there has been suspicion of and deep concern about some Western interventions, examples including DDT/malaria, unregulated sales of Western drugs and promotion of infant formula. Comments about the regulation of medical practitioners and drugs in Britain from the 18th century onwards are also very pertinent as elements that make the Western experience very different from that of the much of the rest of the world.

4) Does the display duck controversy or try to avoid offending people? No, if you mean proponents of CAM (how big a constituency is this really likely to be for the Science Museum? How big a constituency is it at all? This post by the Tribal Scientist suggests that those at risk from CAM in the west is relatively small and, if unlikely to be reached by campaigns like 10:23, unlikely to be reached by the Science Museum either). I repeat: the clear premise is that these practices are not effective as treatments. I think the Museum is right to assume that their visitors consider the triumph of modern, evidence-based medicine to be just that and, in case not, the displays are shaped to help people come to that conclusion. So they are, as a science museum, being controversial by including CAM and helping visitors explore some of the reasons why these (changing) traditions continue to exist. Losing Simon Singh as a trustee and getting this kind of rap from fans of science is, surely, much more difficult for the Museum than offending users of homeopathy, yet they have stood by this display for the last five years, and continue to do so.

All of the above shows that, while my first post tried (in vain) to stick to the comments about what science museums are for, I do disagree with the approach taken in the posts by Alex, Marianne and David as I do not think they fairly represent the context of the display or the tone and content of gallery as a whole. For instance, for Alex to write, as he did in his original post, of the case study on homeopathy “That’s right, they categorically state that homeopathy helped her” looks to me like propaganda (even if it is propaganda for a good cause). The framing of the “personal stories”, the use of the word “believes” and big quotation marks must have made it clear to Alex that it was the patient who said this and not the Museum. In the end, though, I suppose it comes down to the individual’s view as to whether the Museum should only be in the business of telling visitors about the current scientific consensus or doing this (often in events, interactives and online rather than or as well as in object displays) and encouraging broader and more discursive approaches.

And, incidentally, I was pleased to see at least four astrology-related items within the Museum’s Cosmos & Culture astronomy display 😉

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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30 Responses to Living Traditions at the Science Museum

  1. Gurdur says:

    Good post, points well made.

    Just in passing, and not meaningful, just trivia; your post reminds me of a true story that the neurologist Harold Klawans told, which centered around the Yiddish proverb, “As useful as cupping a corpse”.

  2. JDM says:

    Thoughtful. I like it. More please. 🙂

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Thanks! Looks like you have some interesting posts over on your site too. The SM Modern Medicine section did mention the exclusion of homeopathy from colleges of medicine in Britain in the 19thc but didn’t say much more – good to see a bit more detail on what, I guess, is a fairly key moment in our national medical history.

      • JDM says:

        I spend too much time researching and not enough writing, sadly.

        It’s interesting how the UK and USA dealt with the perceived threat of homeopathy in different ways. Another post one day; it’s quite relevant to the current popularity of this pseudoscience.

        History repeats.

  3. Will Thomas says:

    Becky, thanks for this very detailed description of the exhibit, which I think clarifies the discussion a great deal, and also, once again, for visiting us at Imperial College on your trip to South Ken.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Thanks Will, I was a bit hesitant to go into this all again in detail, but having finally seen the display I felt some things had to be said…

      And thanks for the invite to Imperial – I had a really enjoyable afternoon. Sorry not to catch you to say goodbye at the end: I’ll try to come over for another seminar soon.

  4. Thony C. says:

    It would appear that people see what they want to see 😉

    P.S. As a historian of astronomy I would be very disappointed if there were no astrology exhibits in the Culture & Cosmos astronomy display.

  5. A very thorough treatment Rebekah. The only thing that surprises me is that you came away with the impression that the Living Traditions displays “clearly show that, although there are old roots, claims made by practitioners to represent ancient traditions are far from clear cut.”

    My impression was that this distinction was more blurred that I was comfortable with. But the difference is interesting in itself – perhaps it reflects the different perspectives (or biases?) that scientists and historians bring to these experiences (if I can characterise us so crudely).

    Other than that, I am completely outraged that you came to Imperial and didn’t say hello! 😉

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I think we’re actually saying something fairly similar (my inelegant sentence says you can “clearly” see the lack of clarity!) but we do perhaps take different things away from this. I found it, firstly, very interesting and, secondly, opposed to claims about unsullied, ancient traditions, or something that avoids the commercialism that makes some distrust big pharma etc. Certainly it was done very deliberately, and carried through the whole exhibit. I agree with your post where you said it would be nice to know more about how individuals like the Chinese professor made sense of their dual approaches but I think this was just a step too far for a museum exhibit in terms of content and detail.

      My comfort with blurriness (or, perhaps, shades of grey) is undoubtedly a product of my training and discipline. There is very little in life, beyond carefully defined research questions, that really is black and white. The question of efficacy of CAM may be one of those areas and, in my view, the whole framing of the exhibit is done on this assumption. But understanding what it actually is, how it is actually used and what this really means involves a whole range of more complex questions. I need to think on this more….

      Had a busy day at IC yesterday – sorry not to drop by! I’m always up for invitations to my Alma Mater though 😉

  6. A great read that addresses the discussion nicely. Unfortunately, living in Australia, I’ve been unable to do more than form a second-hand-informed opinion on this topic. I loved the science museum when I lived in London and struggled to put it all into a context. That said, my recent interest in medical anthropology really made it hard for me to see how much of the skeptic’s anxiety was warranted. There seems to be a trend at the moment to rise up against anything that mentions CAM in some way without putting in bold letters how it is nonsense, as if that will solve the problem of people using CAM to their detriment. By the sounds of it, this display does a good job of putting medical history into a reasonable context.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Many thanks for leaving a comment – I’ve found your posts very helpful in getting my head around these topics. As you say, the amount of anxiety that some have about what they like to term “woo” seems out of proportion to the amount of risk it represents, and I sometimes wonder how much is generated as part of asserting expertise and group identity (I, of course, *love* pointing out bad history of science – and I do want to find ways of correcting it, and I claim there is a public benefit too, but I think it is usually criticism of lack of knowledge rather than the wrong kind of knowledge…).

      • draust says:

        As I said elsewhere, Rebekah, I think the “amount of risk” is really in the way that the popularity of CAM, and its “ancient-ness”, is being used to try and legitimize it within the crucial frame of “What should we do in medicine and what sort of evidence what we do should have behind it”.

        There is a major campaign going on to put “integrative medicine” centres (CAM treatment and teaching set-ups) into major hospitals and academic medical centres in the US (especially) and the UK – read Orac’s blog for many examples. The “not just one way of knowing” card appears again and again in discussions pushing this, as does “understanding traditions” and the “we must be people-centred”, and all sorts of other apparently reasonable things that would “speak” to social scientists and those with anthropological backgrounds (for instance). None of these things are necessarily bad. But the basic problem for scientists is that, when it comes down to it, the proponents of all this stuff repeatedly want it to be given a pass on the kinds of evidence that mainstream science and medicine has to meet, day in and day out. They deny this publicly, but actions speak louder than words. And they use the above conceptual and language borrowings from social science to give their campaign a perceived legitimacy.

        The history of improving treatments and outcomes in 20th century medicine is basically the story of working out ways to be rigorous about deciding what things work better, rather than relying on feelings, traditions, time-tested ways, what people would LIKE to be true etc etc. Many people in science and medicine now see this as being at risk, particularly as the CAM lot are increasingly arguing that students and doctors in training should be taught to be “knowledgeable” and “respectful” about CAM. But these are code words; what they really mean, in practise, is “unquestioning” and “enthusiastic”. More about the language shifting here.

        Now imagine that we are moving, in the UK, towards a healthcare landscape which, with an ever-increasing focus on marketisation, and thus inevitably on patients as “customers “, will increasingly be about giving people what they WANT, rather than what they objectively need. I think you can see where this is going, and why we are so twitchy.

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        I do understand the twitchiness about all this, and there are serious points to be made and campaigns to fight – which is why I think that focusing on things like the Science Museum’s unobjectional display is a serious red herring. There is nothing within this display that would encourage people to call for an increase in this kind of approach in British hospitals, and suggesting that an institution like the SM would be at all interested in advertising CAM is unhelpful.

        In my view, focus should perhaps be placed instead on regulators – and there are political fights to be had about the direction of the NHS, privatisation of healthcare and consumer-led care. It strikes me that rather than simply worrying about what practitioners of CAM are offering and claiming it might be a good idea to think more about why people sometimes become dissatisfied with conventional care and medicine.

  7. sbej says:


    I just glanced at a survey on “cultural illness explanations” carried out on a few Indian N.H.S patients with leg ulceration in Ealing and Hounslow.

    Beliefs with regard to cause varied from humorial theories, poor circulation, lower immunity, bad blood, being cursed and a wrong commited in a past life or the present one.

    There is no way an understanding of traditional beliefs related to illness is not going to make you twitchy. It should, the evidence is disconcerting but I think that is why approaches like that used by the S.M in dealing with such issues are perfectly valid and understandable.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      To me this looks like good evidence that a one-size-fits-all approach to campaigning against CAM is unlikely to be helpful. In Britain both users and practitioners of CAM come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, come to it for a variety of reasons and make use of different ‘traditions’. A successful campaign needs to be clear about its objectives and exactly who it is addressing.

      • Jeb says:

        When you talk about tradition, the concept of ethnicity is never far behind with all the academic, political, legal and legislative issues that the term brings to the table.

  8. Draust;

    I don’t think there are many who support a rationalist approach to health and medicine who don’t feel the same anxieties towards the marketing-based approach to healthcare. From my perspective, I think what is of concern is that the ‘twitchiness’, as you’ve labeled it, seems to in its own way legitimise a certain irrationality amongst skeptics and the like. There’s such a fear that CAM will continue to become increasingly popular, and ‘rational medicine’ will lose ground, that any response or form of activism is considered to be worth trying.

    The problem I have with this is that others have already have had a head-start on addressing the dilemma on how to balance culture with effective medical treatment, and have found much that fails (or even compromises attempts to ‘educate’ a population in healthcare).

    There are no simple solutions or easy answers in finding that balance, but to view this as ‘therefore anything goes’ is as ignorant as dismissing evidence in conventional medicine due to its inherent complexities. Yes, twitchiness is understandable. But as rational thinkers, one might hope there’s a capacity to view the CAM problem in light of human nature, with evidence produced by relevant fields of research, and not in an ad hoc, reactive fashion that serves to ease the twitchiness without really proving useful.

    • Richard King says:

      Reason and rationality is not confined to the atheist, materialist, mainstream science approach, or view, and the abusiveness, name calling, talking down to people and a general high level of arrogance in which many of them indulge is within what most people would regard as reasonable or rational.

      When people take the “I am a scientist” approach and use terms such as “woo”, “woo-meister”, even “marinated in woo”, in addition to the frequent “quack” with ducks on some of their web sites, even advertising t-shirts and mugs with ducks on them, are we meant to take them as knowledgeable people with whom it is possible to have a reasonable discussion, or juveniles with whom we will have to have patience while they grow up.

      These days I tend to use a counter arrogant response, mostly “tongue in cheek” admittedly, to the “I am a scientist” attitude; “So what, I am more than just a scientist”. An engineer has to be a competent scientist, among other things, but the requirement for an Engineering Degree and Charter Engineer, Professional Engineer, status is less than 20% science. There is far more to engineering and technology than just science, or even applied science; similarly with other matters that scientists tend to think they know about and understand but are actually well short of both.

  9. I see several responses here that seem to be critical of those who think that magic medicine has no place in universities and the science museum. The fact is that alternative medicine is a large money-making industry that preys on gullible people who are often desperate for relief. Vice-chancellors who promote degrees that teach ancient myths as though they were true are a danger to public health. That is quite serious. In the case of the science museum, i don’t suppose for a moment they they intended to promote ancient myths as truth. My guess is that this small bit of their exhibit was concocted by someone who just didn’t understand the problems in this area. These things happen, and I blame not so much the person who concocted the exhibit as the senior people at the science museum who seem just incapable of saying “sorry this time we made a mistake and we’ll fix it”. That would have been easy and painless. Instead we are treated to condescending PR guff, That merely adds to the shame.

    As you will gather, I disagree totally with Rebekah Higgitt. It is hard enough to deal with a largely fraudulent industry and vice-chancellors who make money “training” people for that industry. When that effort is hindered by some scientists and the science museum, it is nothing short of tragic.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Many thanks for taking time to respond, David. I think, in fact, that there’s many things that we and most other commenters agree on here. However, it is wrong to suggest that the curators responsible for the display (in a national museum it is very unlikely that this was the work of a single individual or that there were not many stages and much consultation in the process of developing it) did not understand the issues that they were dealing with. They, and the more senior people, are happy with what was done and this is why they see no need to admit to a mistake that didn’t happen or to “fix” anything. They are riding this current little storm and having the courage of their convictions.

      I’d like to know what you make of my point about the three cases of objects that introduce the gallery, which I think set out the stall simply and clearly. I’d also invite you to consider who the Museum is addressing. Remember that as you walk into the Museum you pass donation boxes that say “Love science? Keep it Free!”. You, the Museum and its visitors, and I, are (or should be) on the same side with regard to the question of how CAM is dealt with in this country. There is no need for you to create divisions where they do not exist.

      • phayes says:

        […] They, and the more senior people, are happy with what was done and this is why they see no need to admit to a mistake that didn’t happen or to “fix” anything.

        “It is wrong to suggest the curators erred, because they are happy they did not err.”

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        @phayes Apologies for my unclear phrasing. How about “It is wrong to suggest that the curators erred because they did not err”, at least not in the ways that David has indicated.

  10. sbej says:

    David, the name of the exhibition was living traditions. That is a somewhat different creature from an ancient myth. It’s important to grasp the difference particularly as the industry you refer to has been sucessfull in using such terms in it’s lobbying to remain legal.

    Its a serious issue and a complex one. Vague, ill- classified rhetoric is not going to be the winning solution I suspect and strikes me as a very un-scientific approach to the subject.

  11. I was given the name of the person who was said to be responsible, though out of kindness I haven’t published it. I’m happy yo pass it on to anyone who needs to know.

    Perhaps you should go back to my post and listen to the recordings and look at the advertising l; literature, at

    It isn’t even anthropology. It is simple wilful misrepresentation of evidence to make money. I realise that most of its defenders here are not scientists, but nevertheless i am deeply disappointed that you don’t seem to even understand the difference between science and myth.

    It isn’t a joke. It isn’t an intellectual exercise. These people are treating patients who may, in some cases, be seriously ill. It actually matters a lot whether their treatments work. The science museum, and some of the comments here, could be harming real sick people.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I know many of the Science Museum curators, so no need, thank you. I have read your posts, all the text and heard the recordings. As explained in my post I cannot see how these (within their context in the display) can be taken as advertising. Who is supposed to be making money? I would be hugely surprised if any SM visitor has contacted any of the individuals alluded to in the display.

      I would be grateful if you could explain in what way I have shown that I can’t see the difference between science and myth. I can point out that there are also a number of commenters here who have scientific backgrounds, as do the majority of Science Museum curators and historians of science. I know it is not a joke, but you have picked the wrong battle here – please explain how the Science Museum or I are “harming real sick people” when we are all agreed that CAM is ineffective treatment.

    • Jeb says:

      If you look at what groups like the A.N.H are proposing to do to mount a legal challenge to any negative legal changes, they don’t appear to be basing it on a scientific argument.

      The legal advice they have got suggests “A human rights/cultural discrimination argument, which will delineate the social and cultural impacts of the planned restriction of access to products associated with traditional medicinal systems.”

      Click to access 100831-ANH-Benefyt-THMPD-position-paper.pdf

      The best solution being suggested by some commentators is that ridicule is the most effective weapon in resolving these difficulties. Or that the argument should not involve those whose expertise is in culture rather than science.

      That would seem most unwise given the political and legal reality, as is suggesting that this is simply a matter of science v.s. ancient myth.

  12. Alex Davenport says:

    Ok my view has somewhat shifted this past week on this whole topic.
    Last weekend I helped out in Reading at a pretend popup shop with hidden cameras.
    This pretend pop up shop sold fake “Alt Med” and it was my job (as one of three) to sell these medicines and treatments. I will be blogging shortly on this matter.

    The whole experience was alarming as it really hammered home to me the pain and suffering some people are really going through and turning to anyone to help as they feel conventional medicine has failed.
    I feel strongly that any misrepresentation, however small, however contextual (is this even a word?) is unforgivable by someone such as the science museum.

    I find it interesting that you came away with a completely different opinion of the setting and quality of the exhibits that I did. I agree with Stephen that this may be a background thing. I also wonder how much of it (on your part here) was confirmation Bias for yourself, just as if I was to go somewhere having previously read a lot about it, it would influence me. I wonder if I myself have had confirmation bias by having an extremely low tolerance to Alt Med.
    That being said the whole issue of what people perceive by going to a museum they trust is an interesting one, especially if it depends on their background.
    To me it begs the question, Can science exhibits be displayed without first having a reasonable knowledge of the exhibit itself? That is to say:
    Showing an alt med therapy to an audience is all well and good if that audience has prior knowledge that the majority of it is Bollocks. Showing that same exhibit to someone without that knowledge may give the illusion that Alt Med is a viable alternative.
    I’m not a psychologist so I really don’t know but I think in general this must be almost the same sort of tactic that salesman take.
    I would also have to agree with Prof C on the advertising and I really did feel this was unacceptable. I think even mentioning in passing your own private practise is unacceptable, but then maybe that is my own hypersensitivity on this issue.

    So yeah, I think the Crux is….I dont agree with your conclusions, but how interesting that we could go to the same exhibit and come away feeling very different things.

    I also take some issue with your “Well it must say something that they haven’t changed this exhibit” argument. Never underestimate people’s inability to admit fault.

    So with a slightly disjointed but continued ramble, Id say its really interesting how our backgrounds have influenced our SM experience, but also maybe this is an argument (for both sides) that Scientists and Science Communicators should liaise more?


    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Thanks for adding your comments. As I mentioned above I am sure that my finding were effected by some desire to exonerate the Museum, although as I said in the post I was actually surprised by its quality, after having been led to a very different picture by what I had previously read.

      It might be worth pointing out that museum curators, designers and interpreters (who will all have had an input) are precisely in the business of considering audiences, expectation and reactions. Of course they don’t always get it right but they will have thought about it at length, and they will have thought about general visitors more than those with specialist knowledge. I am, having seen the exhibit, still not sure what you think they have actually misrepresented. They chose not say in so many words “this does not work” because they are taking that as read and moving the topic on. It is all predicated on the question WHY are these things practiced when there are better options (cf the quotes about the Nepalese case). They certainly don’t say it does work and, as I hope I have made clear, most visitors will take away the point that homeopathy and drumming are in one section while conventional medicine, antisceptic surgery and public health measures (which surely even opponents of conventional medicine see as a Good Thing) are in another.

      I will be interested to read more about your experiement selling ‘fake’ fake medicines. I can imagine that it is an ethical minefield. I also hope that it enouraged you to consider campaigning about making people’s experiences of conventional medicine more satisfactory. The SM exhibit was largely about CAM in other countries, where the issues are very different, but in the British context if people turn to CAM because they’ve had bad experiences of GPs and the NHS, focus might helpfully be put on this perception of failure than on what alternative practitioners are offering.

  13. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Several of the comments here have raised the issue of expectations and bias, probable very fairly. It strikes me that something the Science Museum might sensibly do is share any visitor consultations and surveys that they have done with regard to this display.

    However, I thought it might also be worth pointing out that I have much less baggage on the issue of CAM than some of the other participants in this debate. It is not something I have ever used, studied or campaigned on. My knowledge of science and the eminently rational upbringing my parents bestowed on me leads me to reject claims made by practitioners of CAM. My training as an historian, and my experience of life, encourages me to understand the complexities that surround science, how it is communicated and how it is received.

    In this debate I have, essentially, been speaking up for the right to discuss science in ways that go beyond the ‘objective facts’. This is *absolutely* not contrary to also campaigning against the legitimation of CAM by those in positions of authority. Science cannot be weakend by attempts to understand the problems it raises and the reasons why people sometimes reject it. On the contrary, this can only help scientists to frame their questions and legislators to make decisions in ways that benefit society.

    OK – off the soapbox now!

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