Author: Mariam Rahman, Museum Blog

The World of Museums According to A Teen Curatorial Assistant

Published by Mariam Rahman

Image of International Museum of Surgical Science building, with a statue positioned in front of the building named Hope and Help, created by Louis Linck.
The International Museum of Surgical Science and statue “Hope and Help” created by Louis Linck.

Before I applied for this position, I had little to no experience with museums. I had been to the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry but couldn’t remember much since I went with my family when I was younger. Slowly, I started realizing that the world of museums was vastly interesting and had a little something for everyone. This realization helped me understand that the value of museums lies in the fact that people voluntarily come here because they want to learn. Every day at school, I see expressions of boredom and disinterest on my classmates faces, and oftentimes feel those same emotions when the class is about something I feel I have no use for or desire to learn. However, by working at the International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS) I learned that museums thrive based on the notion that people like to learn things, and they exist in part to make learning entertaining.

Every day I worked, there was something that I had never done before, or didn’t know much about, which was exactly what I was looking to gain from this position. The first few weeks I worked, I did things like make address labels for postcards about a temporary traveling exhibit, record inventory of a closet filled with past activities and educational materials from the museum, and gather data from the Guest Book log to enter into a spreadsheet. While it may seem that little can be learned from doing these activities, I became aware of other galleries and museums in the area (big and small), past exhibits and activities at the museum, and that IMSS visitors come from all over the world from medical and non-medical backgrounds.

Image of both Teen Curatorial Assistants positioning a label on the wall for the new Plant Medicine Exhibit.
IMSS Teen Curatorial Assistants, Mariam (left) and Gwen (right), hanging up labels for the Plant Medicine Exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science.

As time passed, I was able to shadow the IMSS Education Interns while they learned to give tours, help with exhibit installation (“Plant Medicine”) and deinstallation (“Deadly Medicine”), write a proposal for an exhibit, and so much more. When I tagged along for tours given by the IMSS Education Interns, I learned it’s important to keep both the tour guide’s and visitors’ interests in mind. This way, giving a tour becomes more exciting to the tour guide rather than nerve-wracking since the objective is to educate people about something that they found fascinating, allowing their excitement to make their tour more interesting for visitors. This is why interns are encouraged to base their tours off of objects around the museum they’ve chosen to research. 

As for exhibition installation and deinstallation, it can be a workout– both physically and mentally. “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” was the temporary traveling exhibit on display for the majority of my days at IMSS, and since I worked the last day of deinstallation, I helped load the truck with its surprisingly heavy contents. Installation is mentally demanding because of the measurement involved in placing didactic labels (the posters displaying the exhibit’s content) on the walls, and adjusting lighting to illuminate the information properly while staying mindful of the dynamic of how people would move throughout the exhibit. 

Image of a scale architectural model of an anatomical theater.
Scale architectural model of the anatomical theater in the Palazzo Centrale of the University of Padua. IMSS collection.

At one point, I was asked to think of a way a particular room in the museum could be used, whether it be for an exhibit, a reading area, or something else. To come up with ideas for this room, I took inspiration from one of my favorite objects in the museum; the scale model of the Anatomical Theatre. In the past, men of all ages and backgrounds would attend dissections of cadavers in a building similar to the model. The Colosseum-like shape of the building allowed everyone attending to see and hear and therefore benefit from the lecture. The use of all five  senses to learn has always held importance to mankind, and now with terms like “visual, auditory, or tactile learner” we’ve come to know that people often learn better through a particular sense called their learning style. Through the combination of people’s learning styles, with visitor’s tendencies to want to touch objects in museums, the concept of touch galleries arose. Touch Galleries allow visitors to touch objects in the museum while learning about them through their labels; I thought to bring this idea to the IMSS by creating a proposal for a touch gallery that would allow visitors to explore how healers have used the sense of touch throughout history and today to determine what’s happening in the body. This would be possible through the use of 3D models to provide examples of what it feels like when something is wrong in the human body, and the labels would discuss the models through the scientific topics of percussion, auscultation, and palpation. This experience helped me understand the level of detail required for a proposal and the variety of factors to take into account when creating an exhibit. 

Through this position, I’ve discovered that I’m interested in comprehending how people, as well as myself, learn effectively. As I aspire to become a physician, I’ve come to see this career fits my interests, since innovation and advancement in medicine and healthcare technology never stops. This way there’s always room for growth even after graduation. My time as a Teen Curatorial Assistant helped me understand the value of museums and education, through learning about office management, how to give entertaining yet educational tours of the museum, what it takes to create an exhibit, and how these experiences along with many more come together to produce an entertaining place of knowledge.

Mariam Rahman was a Summer Teen Curatorial Assistant at IMSS and is currently a senior at Elgin High School with a passion for healthcare sciences. She is the leader of a youth group called Pristine Message that creates content about Islam on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. In her free time she likes to read, draw, and watch crime shows on Netflix.

This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

Illinois Arts Council Agency logo