Diane Wendt spoke today at the National Library of Medicine on “Vessels, Tubes and Tanks: Historic Biotechnologies at the Smithsonian.” Ms. Wendt is cocurator of From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry a collaborative exhibition project between the Library and the National Museum of American History now on view at NLM in Bethesda, MD. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work.
Diane Wendt: For the past 15 years I have worked in the medical history collections at the National Museum of American History. As an Associate Curator I am involved in a variety of work including acquisitions, collections care and documentation, research, exhibitions and public programs, as well as providing access to the collections and answering public inquires. Like many people I spend a lot of time at the computer, writing and researching, but I also have a collection of tens of thousands of artifacts across the hall which I am continually referencing and studying.
CN: Can you tell us about the work you presented in your lecture, “Vessels, Tubes and Tanks: Historic Biotechnologies at the Smithsonian”
DW: The real work over the past year was curating the exhibition, From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry, now installed at the Library and available in a traveling banner format. As we selected objects and graphics for the exhibition, I remember remarking that vessels—of different sizes, shapes, and materials—were a recurring motif. So I thought I would just expand on this theme for the lecture and focus on the Smithsonian collections and how they have developed over the past 130 years. I like the challenge of making connections between objects and of finding interesting stories in unexpected places. You never know if people will look closely at the objects in an exhibition especially when they are small, unfamiliar, and not exactly eye-catching. In a lecture I have a captive audience, and hopefully I can hold their attention.
CN: How did you originally become interested in the History of Medicine? What inspires you in your work? Have you ever made a discovery in your work that made you say “wow!” ?
DW: The collection has been my inspiration for studying the history of medicine. When I first started working in the medical collections I had no background in the history so I had almost no reference points for understanding the objects. But I found that the objects were a good starting point for learning the history—just by trying to answer basic questions: What is it? How was it made? How was it used? Why is it in the Smithsonian collection? One reason I got the job initially was because there was a need just to answer these basic questions, because so little had been recorded about many of the objects. I am always discovering things in the collection that make me say “wow.” Here are a few objects that have intrigued me recently:
CN: What brings you to use the collections of the NLM? Is there an item in our collection that has been particularly useful in your studies, or for which you have special interest?
DW: I was specifically looking for material in the NLM collections to complement the objects and support themes of the exhibition. While some of the material provided background information for the exhibition text, for the most part we needed to find material for the display—either to put in a case or pull for a graphic. So I didn’t really draw from any particular collection, but rather searched broadly and combed through a lot of material looking for documents, pictures and illustrations such as this pamphlet now on display at NLM.
CN: Tell us a bit more about your work and your ideas about history.
DW: I hope the things I do—exhibitions, writing, programs—spark curiosity about the past. Studying history does provide a different perspective on the world and (hopefully) makes one more thoughtful about the present and I think studying objects is a fun way to approach history.
Diane Wendt’s presentation was part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. Visit From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in medicine and Industry online or read more posts in this series here.