Collaboration and Curation

Loren Miller, PhD, will speak at 2 PM on February 14 at the NIH Natcher Conference Center on “Collaboration and Curation: Creating the Exhibition Collaboration and Care.” Dr. Miller is guest curator of NLM’s exhibition Physician Assistants: Collaboration and Care and a Curatorial Assistant at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Loren Miller stands outside the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture Loren Miller: I am originally from northern NJ, but after graduating from college I moved to Washington, DC because I wanted to work in the museum world. Ten years later, I am lucky enough to have realized that dream. In 2015 I earned my Ph.D. in history from American University, and went on to serve as the Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. When the fellowship ended, the Museum hired me as the Curatorial Assistant for the Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA). In this current position, I help the Curator of Photography and Film develop, plan, and mount exhibitions in CAAMA. My work varies each day; however, I often execute tasks such as performing research, selecting photographs for exhibitions, writing exhibit labels and content, and acquiring new collections. I feel lucky every day to be part of such an important museum.

CN: On February 14, 2017 you’ll be at NLM to talk about “Collaboration and Curation: Creating the Exhibition Collaboration and Care.” Could you give us a little preview of your lecture?

LM: As you can probably tell from the title of the exhibit, collaboration is a key theme of Physician Assistants: Collaboration and Care. What might be less obvious, is that it was also essential to my work as the curator of the show. My lecture will explore how the different parties involved in the project—the Physician Assistant History Society, the National Library of Medicine, and I—worked together to create a successful show that everyone was proud of. When I began considering lecture topics, I thought it would be interesting to explore the collaboration that occurred while developing the exhibition, because people don’t generally think about the process of creating a show. As a curator, I see collaboration as an essential element of a success. Curators must be good listeners and expert moderators to ensure that all the stakeholders in a project feel understood, as well as that everyone is proud of the final product.

Men in scrubs lift a person onto a stability board while others watch.

During a collaborative training exercise, students from Indiana State University’s PA studies, nursing, and athletic training programs work together with the local fire department and paramedics to care for a “football coach” who suffered a heart attack on the sidelines of a game, Terre Haute, IN, 2013
Courtesy Indiana State University

CN: What did you find most interesting about this subject?

LM: One of the most interesting things about physician assistants (PAs) is how the profession developed rapidly in such a short period of time and continues to expand today. The first three PAs graduated from Duke University in 1967, and within 50 years the number of certified PAs has grown to over 100,000 in the United States alone. There has also been a significant amount of international expansion, with PA studies programs opening around the world. Over this 50-year period, the leaders of the profession faced challenges such as, identifying the new occupation’s place within the larger field of medicine, standardizing and regulating the field, and responding to the country’s changing medical needs. However, I believe the profession’s success is largely based on PAs’ abilities to listen, respond, and adapt to changing patient needs. For example, as science and medical technology have progressed over the years, PAs have expanded beyond general internal medicine by specializing in a variety of areas such as surgery, dermatology, and obstetrics and gynecology.

People in surgical dress working in an operating room.

At the Cleveland Clinic, Raisa Polacek, PA-C (left) assists during an open heart surgery, Cleveland, OH, 2015
Courtesy Cleveland Clinic

CN: This is very recent history, what sources did you find most informative as you conducted your research for the exhibition?

LM: The fact that PAs have such a recent history was a unique element of this exhibition. While medical professionals have written books and articles about PAs from a health perspective, there are few historical analyses. This challenge meant that I relied heavily upon primary sources during my research to supplement medically oriented secondary sources. The Physician Assistant History Society was an amazing resource, because it has a wide range of primary sources, such as professional documents, photographs, videos, and oral histories. The Society’s book, The Physician Assistant: An Illustrated History, was also very helpful, because it provided a basic overarching history of the profession and biographies of notable PAs. One of my favorite sources at the National Library of Medicine, was a collection of early photographs of PAs in the HMD Prints and Photos Collection. Finally, I also used newspaper articles and stories in professional publications, such as the PA Professional, to learn about recent events, people, and stories in the field.

A woman takes another woman's blood pressure.

At the School of Allied Health Sciences, University of Texas Medical Branch, Kathy Lester (left) practices taking a patient’s blood pressure during her clinical training, Galveston, TX, 1972
Courtesy National Library of Medicine

CN: In your research for this project, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?

LM: During my research, I was particularly drawn to Joyce Nichols, PA-C due to her tenacity, perseverance, and generosity. Nichols was the first woman to become a PA, and she overcame many hardships to earn her degree. She grew up on a rural tobacco farm in North Carolina without enough money to pay for her education. At a time when most PA students were white, male, veteran corpsmen, Nichols was a married African American woman with young children. Additionally, during her first year in Duke University’s PA studies program, her house burned down and her family lost everything. Despite this setback, Nichols graduated from the program and devoted her career to serving her community and those in need. She created one of the first rural, satellite health clinics in North Carolina dedicated to aiding underserved poor, rural, and African American people. I believe that Nichols’ commitment to serving her community and bettering the lives of others truly embodies the values of the profession.

A woman treats a mans foot while another woman looks on.

Joyce Nichols, PA-C (center) and aide Shirley Thompson (right) treat Raymond Hayes at the Lincoln Community Health Center’s foot clinic, Durham, NC, 1983
Courtesy University of North Carolina Archives

Dr. Loren Miller’s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.