It is time to put a National Museum of Health and Medicine on the tourist map.
Every year, almost 25 million visitors make their way to Washington's Mall. There they get glimpses of outer space, learn about wild animals and see stunning examples of art and technology. But in no museum on the Mall do they learn anything about their bodies, their health, themselves.
Our country is facing critical health problems. We run up annual medical bills of more than $600 billion as we try to cope with the effects of cancer and heart disease, AIDS, rampant drug abuse and an aging population. Meanwhile, we do far too little to educate people about how to stay healthy. Nor do we help them understand how to make the complex ethical choices created by advances in technology and bioengineering.
A National Museum of Health and Medicine would fill the gap. The museum, now in the preliminary planning stages, would be a learning laboratory for 4 to 5 million projected annual visitors, and would educate millions more through traveling exhibits and community programs.
The idea for a national museum on health and medicine is an outgrowth of the Army Medical Museum. When it was housed on the Mall at 7th and Independence, the Army Medical Museum received nearly 1 million visitors a year. But when its building was razed in 1968 to make way for the Hirshhorn, its collections were banished to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In this relative obscurity, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has had to struggle to maintain the museum with limited resources, exhibiting less than 2 percent of 325,000 historic artifacts, 17,000 anatomic specimens and 2.2 million archival documents and photographs in the collections. Not many tourists bother to make the long trip up 16th Street to see this diminished display.
Not surprisingly, then, a central location downtown is of prime importance for the new museum. A foundation, chaired by former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, will meet this month to begin the tasks of site selection and fund-raising. The museum also will begin its transition from being funded exclusively by the Department of Defense to being a joint partnership, with federal funds supplemented by private-sector support. Smithsonian staff members will serve as advisers.
Plans for the NMHM call for a series of "halls," each dedicated to a specific area of health and medicine. One will address national health concerns such as heart disease and occupational health. Another will focus on human physiology, from molecular biology to broad aspects of human diet and nutrition. A third will explore the history and the future of medicine. Exhibits on international health will address the cultural dimensions of disease and the contributions of tropical rain forests and coral reefs to modern pharmaceuticals. Still other exhibits will address health-care delivery, such as the evolution of hospitals and the future of home care.
Imagine a museum that can use state-of-the-art technology to illustrate the mapping of the human genome, the potential of robotics to advance human capability and the power of computers to help people to one day monitor their own health. Devices such as interactive video and computer simulations will bring out the drama of "dry bones" scientific information. Such a museum will be invaluable in inspiring, informing and educating the American public.
Take, AIDS, for example. In 1988 the surgeon general mailed an AIDS pamphlet to every home in America. But it landed on the doorsteps of households barraged by different and stronger signals from radio, television and advertising. For many, the printed message about abstinence and condom use paled in comparison with sexually explicit rock music, the passions of daytime soap operas and R-rated comedies in which sexual dalliances are funny, rather than fatal.
At the NMHM, the message about AIDS would be the same as in the pamphlet, but the medium will be more powerful. An AIDS exhibit would use striking audio and visual technologies to explain the epidemic, while communicating the historical, cultural and social context of past epidemics.
The NMHM doesn't intend to shirk the difficult relationship between health and cultural attitudes. In a society that is perceived as sexually permissive, it is ironic that many of us have a self-conscious ambivalence toward our own bodies. This ambivalence often prevents us from adequately preventing disease -- breast and cervical cancers, for example. A National Museum of Health and Medicine perhaps can succeed where art museums may have failed in making visitors more comfortable with their anatomy.
Like other museums, the NMHM will nurture the human spirit and intellect. But unlike other museums, it will also have the potential to improve people's health and to save lives.
Heather Paul Kurent
Marc Micozzi are, respectively, the secretary of the National Museum of Health and Medicine Foundation and director of the museum.