Way back at the end of January 2020, USA Today posted “10 unique and quirky museums around the United States.” The Indiana Medical History Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana, was at the top of the list, with this description:
“Not for the faint of heart, this museum is the oldest surviving pathology facility in the nation. Located on the grounds of the former Indiana Hospital for the Insane, it’s remained unchanged since it abruptly shut down 50 years ago, leaving chemicals in vials, brains in jars and a jaw-dropping variety of items swallowed by patients."
The USA Today writer Lois Alter Mark continued with this description: “You’ll tour laboratories, autopsy rooms, a medical library and an anatomical museum — all within the same walls where patients were treated for hysteria, schizophrenia and epilepsy during the early 20th century. It will give you a new appreciation for all the advances in medicine since then — and make you glad you were born when you were.”
I made a note to follow up with IMHM executive director Sarah M. Halter. And then stuff happened, leading to this notice on the IMHM website: “In order to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19 in the community and to protect our staff and volunteers, effective March 15th we will be closed to the public until further notice.”
At the end of June, I finally caught up with Halter, especially to let NUVO readers know about the IMHM live virtual talk on July 12, 2 p.m. Bill McNiece, associate professor of Anaesthesia at the IU School of Medicine, and Bill Beck, visiting assistant professor of Classics at IU Bloomington, will present Indianapolis Confronts the 1918 Spanish Influenza. You can register for the live program here to listen to and participate in the Q&A. A recording of the program will be available on the IMHM website and YouTube channel at a later date.
RITA KOHN: What has been happening at the Indiana Medical History Museum since the onset of COVID-19?
SARAH HALTER: One of the silver linings we've found during this pandemic is that while some of our projects have been necessarily put on hold, like our work to memorialize the patients buried in the oldest section of the Central State Hospital cemetery, we have been able to refocus on other areas like expanding access to our collections online and building our online presence. We're adding new things every week like new blog posts, online exhibits, our recently recorded events, and resources for researchers, teachers, and families. There are more online exhibits and videos in the works, and we will soon be adding photo galleries as well.
We are working to make the prototype of our Central State Hospital online memory archive live, as well. That will be a safe space for people with various connections to the hospital to learn more about its history and its closure and to share their own memories, stories, and photos related to the hospital or grounds. For some time we have been very active on social media, as well, especially Twitter (@imhm) and Facebook.(@IMHMuseum), and we are also on Instagram (also @IMHMuseum).
We look forward to opening the Museum to the public again as soon as we can do so safely. At that time visitors can visit the Old Pathology Building, as it is known, to learn about the history of medicine in Indiana and of Central State Hospital in particular, through the historic, and remarkably intact, laboratories that were once the Pathological Department of the hospital. This is where physicians studied the physical causes of mental diseases and looked for treatments and cures for them.
We also have a beautiful Medicinal Plant Garden to demonstrate medicinal plants both indigenous to Indiana and brought here by settlers and Prairie Patch that demonstrates native grasses. These, and our burgeoning Native Tree Arboretum, are safe to visit right now during daylight hours, and we encourage anyone who wants to visit to come out and learn more about these wonderful plants while enjoying a bit of nature in the middle of the City.
KOHN: What's the story of the medicinal garden and its partnerships? How can we start such a garden at our own places?
HALTER: Well, I can't help anyone starting a garden or advise anyone on keeping plants alive! If left to me, our garden would be a sorry, sorry sight. But fortunately our garden doesn't depend on me.
The garden was established in 2003 by retired pathologist, Purdue master gardener, and IMHM board member Kathleen Hull, MD. She still manages the garden, which grows every year. It demonstrates more than 120 species of plants traditionally used to treat diseases on five continents, and signage throughout the garden gives information about each plant and their traditional medicinal uses. We have a great partnership with the Purdue Master Gardeners of Marion County, and we owe these beautiful additions to our grounds to a very dedicated group of master gardeners who maintain the garden and offer guided tours, which we will resume next year. They have been put on hold to protect our garden docents and visitors during the pandemic. Our full garden guide with information about the garden and each of the plants is available for free on our website to download as a PDF.
In the meantime, however, we have continued work to make the garden more accessible and even more lovely by adding additional walking paths (with more to come!), and new beds. The garden has been extended to the north side of our building, and the gardeners have been working for the last few years to establish a Native Tree Arboretum to demonstrate trees native to Indiana and a Prairie Patch with native grasses. It's all quite wonderful, and I would encourage folks to visit during daylight hours. We just ask that you not touch any of the plants and please practice social distancing.
KOHN: What other kinds of safe adventures can a family now experience on the grounds around 'the Old Pathology Building'?
HALTER: Right now the gardens are the only parts of the property open to the public, but soon our new self-guided walking tour of Central State Hospital will be printed and available online for folks who want to explore the grounds and learn about the history of the hospital, especially from the patients' perspectives. We received a generous grant from Indiana Humanities and Indiana Landmarks to produce this booklet, and it is ready to go to print now.
KOHN: What else is going on at the museum?
HALTER: I would just add that even though these are strange and uncertain times, and it's disheartening that we can't invite visitors into our wonderful building right now, we are still working hard on new ways to connect with our visitors and supporters, and to bring interesting content in new ways. So thanks to everyone — donors, supporters, volunteers, interns and staff, and users — who are making this possible.
And one more plug, August 9 at 2 p.m., we're having another virtual program presented by Norma Erickson, "When Fate Overtakes a Race Driver": E. Rogers Smith, MD, the Speedway's Second Medical Officer. This is the second in our series on racing and medicine. Registration is open for the first on our website now and will open soon for the second. Register here: http://www.imhm.org