Erin McLeary and I are working on a long-term exhibit on Civil War medicine in Philadelphia, which will open at the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 2013.  The exhibit, titled “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits: Injury, Death, and Healing in Civil War Philadelphia,” will take a broad view of medical care and bodily experience during the conflict.

We are investigating innovative ways of presenting material on a website and perhaps also via smartphones, though we have a limited budget.  The exhibit space itself cannot easily accommodate computer kiosks, though we are planning to continue using guide-by-cell tours, which have proven popular at the museum.

A few potential projects:

1) Using technology to explore myths versus facts

I recently chaired a session on medicine at a symposium on the public history of the Civil War at North Carolina State University.  One of the speakers in a session about Lincoln made the point that dull facts cannot displace colorful or emotionally charged myths; you need to give visitors better stories than the ones they walked in with.

For our topic, the myth that injured soldiers “bit the bullet” to undergo amputations is particularly intractable.  In fact, anesthesia (ether or chloroform) was almost universally used for surgeries in both North and South, and the great majority of surgeons were not untrained hacks.

We’d like to consider constructing an interactive website or smartphone application that would enable visitors to investigate the myth of “biting the bullet” and to access compelling, true first-person accounts of anesthesia and surgery, told from different points of view (surgeon, patient, nurse, etc.).

2) Using technology to link the past and the present

In our medicine session at the NC State symposium, George Wunderlich, Director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., spoke about how the museum interprets the many aspects of current medical care that originated in the Civil War period (for instance, organized ambulance services and emergency room protocols).  This is an approach to medical history that particularly resonates with present-day military doctors and other medical professionals.

We would like to find ways to help visitors of all sorts to make these kinds of connections between now and then.  On a website, for instance, we could show a period image of a wartime field hospital or general hospital, then overlay it with present-day images and explanations of the war’s medical legacy.  The challenge will be to tell gripping stories rather than simply presenting facts.

3) Using technology to build research archives

We are also interested in exploring low-cost, relatively fast ways of building rich, easy-to-access archives of documents and images for further research and study.  Since the Civil War inspires so much detailed historical and genealogical research by amateur historians/lay scholars, there should be ways to make the sources we’ve used to construct the exhibit publicly available to them. Such an archive could also be useful for teachers and students. Ideally, the archive should also let visitors add their own materials (or links to materials) and their own annotations.

We welcome your comments and suggestions!