By Tom Clegg
Dan Caughey hit the jackpot.
No, he didn’t buy a winning lottery ticket or unearth a buried treasure, but Caughey (pronounced Coy), the curator of the Living History Museum at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore, feels enriched all the same by the addition of two rotating exhibits to the museum.
Renovations, which took place in September, have cleared the way for Caughey to display a limitless array of possible additions to a popular but formerly stagnant collection.
“I’m extremely excited about this,” Caughey said. “I think this is the biggest development in the museum’s history since it was founded (in 1999). Every visitor who comes, they always say they loved it, but in looking over our visitor surveys, they say they loved it, but nothing ever changes.
“This is going to be a great way to leverage the support we’ve gotten from the school of nursing, and we’ll be able to increase the number of people we get coming through our museum every year. The more people who know about nursing history, for me, that’s the biggest thing.”
One of the first two rotating exhibits, “Angels of the Battlefield: Nursing During the Civil War,” coincided with last year’s 150th anniversary of the start of the bloody conflict. The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 27, features famous nurses such as Clara Barton, who was nicknamed “The Angel of the Battlefield,” and Dorothea Dix, head of the Union Army nurses. But it also features lesser-known nurses with equally interesting stories.
“For humor’s sake, a lot of visitors like Phoebe Pember, who was the head nurse at a (Confederate) hospital in Richmond (Va.) and had a tendency to carry around a pistol with her to keep the doctors in line,” Caughey said. “I think nurses today kind of joke that they wish they could do that.”
Longtime faculty member and Maryland alumna Patricia Morton, RN, PhD, CRNP, FAAN, UMSON associate dean for academic affairs, was on the committee that helped create the museum and remains a staunch supporter. The Civil War exhibit fits in well with the museum’s affinity for attracting military nurses.
“They’re currently in the military, they’re in the reserves or they’re veterans, and they’re very proud to see how we have displayed our military history over the years and the contributions of our nurses in the various wars,” Morton said. “People are shocked at the kinds of contributions nurses made [during the Civil War]. We don’t often think of that.”
The other rotating exhibit space always will be dedicated to highlighting the research being done by the school of nursing, Caughey said.
Although the artifacts on display in the Civil War exhibit are on loan from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., many of the permanent exhibits consist of items donated by alumni. The popularity of an exhibit often varies according to a visitor’s age.
“A lot of times our alumni, one of the things they love is the old nursing uniforms on display,” Caughey said. “Nurses who are in the field now, a lot of times they like seeing the old nursing artifacts we have, like the old syringes. It’s just showing how much the medical profession has changed.
“Syringes that were used in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were made of metal and glass and designed to be used over and over again. Part of the job was to sterilize and clean each syringe so you could use them again.”
Morton said visiting the museum can be an eye-opening experience for young nursing students, who often discover their perceptions of nursing has been distorted by popular culture.
“Unfortunately, many students who come to us, their image of nurses comes from television,” Morton said. “It’s that very romantic, sometimes sensual image. They don’t always portray on TV the knowledge a nurse has to have in caring for patients.”
Tom Clegg is a freelance writer.
LEARN MORE online by visiting Nursing.umaryland.edu/museum.