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Creating “Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness”

By September 22, 2013September 16th, 2023No Comments

Emily Hagens is co-curator of Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness and a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of MinnesotaAside from Masterpiece Theater and rare books, she studies 16th century Italian domestic medicine and vernacular print and manuscript culture.

Most of us know and love Downton Abbey. The beautiful scenery, the love and money that is constantly lost and re-found, the costumes… and the gut-wrenching moments of tragedy, too, keep viewers speculating, hosting themed tea parties, and coming back to Masterpiece Theater’s hit show time and again. Although I generally love the show, the historian of medicine side of me also thinks the detailed research that goes into some of the scenes most filled with tension is exciting. When Lois Hendrickson, interim curator at the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, offered me the opportunity to help curate this fall’s exhibit Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness, I jumped at the opportunity. 

DownAbbey.ExhibitPrepPhoto.Glasses.Sept2013.JPGAs a Ph.D. student in the history of medicine, I’m accustomed to research with archival sources and rare books, but this exhibit required a different kind of initial approach. Instead of beginning in the Wangensteen’s extensive collections of medical books and artifacts, I began on Hulu, re-watching all three seasons of Downton. With ears and eyes tuned to medical instruments and discussions, I took notes on every instant when a character mentioned, feared, or experienced a medical event. I also spent time perusing social and news media sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Buzzfeed, XOJane, and the Huffington Post for ideas about what viewers noticed most often about medicine in the show. Some instances were obvious, like the shock at the sudden presence and disappearance of Spanish Influenza. Others made fewer waves, like Mrs. Patmore’s cataracts or Mrs. Hughes’s breast cancer scare. Since WWI, or The Great War, was such a presence in season 2, Lois and I knew that military medicine would need to be a significant part of the exhibit.

Once Lois and I had determined the essential categories of Downton Abbey’s medicine that we should cover in the exhibit, I turned to the Wangensteen’s collections. I tried to find books that had interesting pictures, graphs and titles that would highlight the experiences of Downton characters and provide additional context for the ways people experienced western medicine in the early twentieth century. The show has given Lois and me a good starting point from which to offer additional discussions about medicine. For example, some have expressed frustration at Sybil’s experience with eclampsia because of the availability of treatments for seizures at the time. This particular episode gives us the opportunity to further explain the show’s decision to focus on the professional conflicts between specialists (like London obstetrician Sir Tapsel) and general practitioners, (like the Scottish family doctor, Dr. Clarkson) in the 1920s. Expanding on certain parts of the show will definitely interest both lovers of Downton and those interested in early twentieth century medicine.

DownAbbey.ExhibitPrepPhoto.DesignerJanaInside case.Sept2013.JPGLois and I really started to get excited about the exhibit when we found out that we would also be working with Kadi Jambois, the library’s graphic design intern. She has helped us think about ways to incorporate colors, typefaces, and other design elements that will really evoke Downton. Thinking hard about graphic design along with including artifacts (like medicine bottles, medical furniture, doctor’s bags, and nursing and surgical equipment) will make this exhibit really come alive. We’ve also been lucky enough to work with Jana Bergstedt who has offered her creative vision that will make this exhibit interactive and visually exciting.

Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness doesn’t open until October 21, but Lois and I, along with Kadi and other library staff, will continue to immerse ourselves in Downton until then. The exhibit will be open from October 21, 2013 to May 16, 2014Monday through Friday from 8:30 am – 4:30 pm. The Wangensteen Library of Biology and Medicine is open to all members of the University of Minnesota and Twin Cities communities and is located in Diehl Hall on the fifth floor.

Until then, “Keep Calm and Watch Downton”!

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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