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Telling the story of Spanish flu


Ahead of the opening of a new Spanish Flu Exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum, we spoke to Hannah Mawdsley, co-curator of the exhibition, about how they’re telling the story of Spanish flu and why its stories are far too often forgotten.

The highly-specialised nature of academic work can sometimes leave you feeling like your research is only of interest to a small group of colleagues.

But as one Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded PhD student has discovered, a museum exhibition offers the perfect opportunity to step out of the Academy, talk directly to the public and fine-tune your own understanding of your topic at the same time.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu: an unusually-deadly global flu pandemic that was responsible for the deaths of between 50 and 100 million people between 1918-1920.

Hannah Mawdsley
Hannah Mawdsley at the Imperial War Museum.

Historian Hannah Mawdsley was researching the way the pandemic has been remembered - and forgotten - at Queen Mary University of London, when the opportunity to co-curate an exhibition at the Florence Nightingale Museum came up.

“My supervisor was a Wellcome Fellow and he knew that there was an opportunity to pitch something,” she says. “He started talking with the director of the Florence Nightingale museum, and roped me into the funding bid; that was approved and so off we went!”

As co-curator Hannah is the academic lead on the project alongside another co-curator with more direct experience of running exhibitions.

The exhibition – which opens on tomorrow (Friday, 21 September 2018) – will focus on nursing during the Spanish Flu crisis and explores the experiences of those that lived and died at the time.

“It was quite a tricky challenge to present the Spanish Flu in simple terms,” says Hannah. “It was a worldwide pandemic, and we wanted to give a flavour of that without having panels and panels each with 3000 words of text on them.”

To address this challenge Hannah and her co-curator decided to focus on half a dozen key themes that they felt were essential to better public understanding of the pandemic; these would allow the exhibition to tell the story without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. They needed to be accessible and interesting.

Spanish Flu ward
Spanish Flu ward. Copyright: Walter Reed

“The problem is, death by flu is not as 'sexy' as death by war,” says Hannah. “There is no glorious charge through the breach and you can't argue that people who died of flu died for King and Country. So, the Spanish Flu hasn't been remembered through official monuments or by many historians.

“But it has been remembered by ordinary people, because it's hard to find a family that hasn't been affected. Between a half and a third of the world's population caught Spanish Flu and that's what we want to show.

“So, one theme we chose was 'Treatments and Remedies'. Because doctors didn't really 'know' what the flu was at the time, people were pretty much left to their own devices when it came to a cure.

“Another theme was focused on the global aspect of the outbreak and the effect that the war had on its spread.

“We will also be giving visitors scratchcards. These have a character on and as visitors move around the exhibition they scratch off bits and by the end they will discover with they lived or died! 

“The benefit of an exhibition is that you have so many ways to tell your story – as an academic you often just have a piece of paper.”

Hannah believes that if you really know your subject well, you should be able to express it in simple terms and says that the exhibition has been fantastic for helping her focus on the essence of her research.

“Having to write and re-write has really helped me boil down what I'm trying to say to its bare bones,” she says.

As a co-curator, one of the main lessons Hannah has learned is the importance of establishing good lines of communication and reinforcing them.

“Because you are not a formal part of the venue team, it's easy to miss out on those casual conversations that people have, and so you need to make sure that someone is responsible for keeping you in the loop,” she says.

But ultimately the exhibition is more than just an exploration of a fascinating and dramatic moment in 20th century history. There could be another deadly flu pandemic at any time, and we all need to prepare for that.

“I hope the exhibition will encourage those visitors that can to get the flu vaccine,” she says.

“Before I started this research I didn't really realise how important that was, but it really is. Although no vaccine can protect you 100% – we can only make a vaccine for a flu that exists and a new one can always pop up and cause havoc – the way that flu mutates means a new strain is usually a combination of existing strains that are covered by existing vaccines.

“This means the more people who have been vaccinated, the greater our 'herd immunity' to flu. And the better prepared we will be for the next major outbreak.”

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