Inaugural lecture: “Being Human: The Contemporary Relevance of Medical Heritage”

Image of the Wellcome exhibition “Being Human,” opened in 2019

On 8 October 2020, Prof. dr. Manon S. Parry gave her inaugural lecture of the professorship in Medical History at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, attendance was limited, but a recording of the lecture can be viewed below. A pdf of the text is also available for download.


Medical museums can play a major role in society by contributing to health and wellbeing. There are over 240 museums displaying historical medical collections in Europe, and more than 37 million visitors have attended anatomical exhibitions such as Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds. Clearly there is great public interest in these presentations of health and medicine, although there is also much disagreement about what should be shown, who should see it, and what audiences might gain from such encounters with the past. This presentation will demonstrate the importance of medical heritage for understanding history, but also in addressing contemporary public health problems, from the stigma of illness or disability, issues of sexuality and reproduction, or the challenges of the Covid 19 pandemic. Innovative uses of sounds, objects, images, and exhibitions will be examined to show how classrooms as well as cultural venues are introducing diverse groups to the material culture of the history of medicine, to promote health, as well as learning. The conclusion highlights the role of the VU MA in Medical and Health Humanities in this work, and the relevance of history and historical collections for engaging health professionals as well as broader audiences.