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Reframed- Conversations about Heritage and Inclusion at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

This year the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow launches a new monthly series of events titled ‘Reframed – Conversations about Heritage and Inclusion’. The aim of these events is to reveal the College’s heritage collections in new ways – reframing their heritage to address issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. In this blog Ross McGregor talks about the process of setting up the programme and the importance of it.

Why are we reframing our heritage?

Inequalities exist in every aspect of society, in every period of history. Institutions are often built on foundations of inequalities and exclusion, and they play a role in the structural inequalities of society. While we celebrate the College’s great history, we also accept that it is an organisation founded on white, male privilege. Prestigious institutions often cultivate exclusion through the establishment of their identity and their sense of authority. Heritage has a complex role to play in this. Old institutions have often used their heritage to create prestige and exclusivity as part of their identity, and as part of their brand. The College has been doing this since its very early days in the 1600s when it began to use its 1599 Royal Charter to distinguish, promote and protect itself. In the Victorian period, the idea of prestige was amplified further by the value placed on antiquity, whether real or imagined.

In initiating our Heritage and Inclusion programme, we first had to step back from our organisation’s established practice, and look in from the outside. In others words, we had to reframe our view of the heritage we work with every day. To really address inequalities we have to change the way we think, talk and act regarding our heritage. The Reframed series of events is a start in this process.

Conversation and collaboration

Our conversations about heritage and inclusion will help us change the way we communicate our heritage, interpret it, and engage people with it. In other words, it will lead to changes in our heritage practice. We will pose questions, and we certainly don’t know all of the answers!

As a small, specialist museum (and archive and special collections library) we see great value in taking a collaborative approach to our heritage and collections. Collaboration helps open up the questions and stories in our collections, engaging with different viewpoints outside of the College, and opening up opportunities for how people interact with our heritage in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. This approach is even more essential when tackling historical inequalities that collections reveal, or sometimes don’t reveal.

The first two events challenge perceptions of two of the most celebrated figures in the College’s history – Joseph Lister and David Livingstone. While Lister’s massive contribution to medical science will always be celebrated, we want to have a conversation about a little-known feature of his career. In the 1870s he was outspoken about women’s access to surgical education, refusing to accept women in his classes. So we are discussing the legacy of this exclusion of women with two leading female clinicians currently working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where Lister developed his famous antiseptic practice. For our conversation about David Livingstone and the white saviour complex, we will be joined by Zandra Yeaman, activist and campaigner with the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) and currently Curator of Discomfort at the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow. Zandra will discuss how heritage organisations can address the racism that is embedded within society, collections, and knowledge. Further events will look at collections that reveal the College’s own historical gender inequality, at the female body in medical education, and at collections that uncover narratives of mental illness.

Our conversations about heritage and inclusion will often be difficult and challenging, but they will also begin a process of change. The College’s heritage, and how people have interacted with it, has evolved over the centuries, but it has never addressed the inequalities that are part of our history. We are having these conversations as public events so that people can join us and be part of that process of change.