Medical Humanities Award 2020: Collaborating to shape hospital environments

In this new mini-series, we meet each of the winners of the AHRC Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Awards 2020 as they share their winning projects. In our second post, we hear from Dr Victoria Bates, winner of the Leadership Award, and Senior Lecturer in Modern History (University of Bristol) and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow (2020-2024). The AHRC Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Awards 2020 celebrates the best of arts and humanities research that seeks to understand and transform the quality of life, health and wellbeing of the population.

I have a strong memory of the first time I heard of the ‘medical humanities’. I was a PhD researcher at the time, working on a medical history thesis at the University of Exeter. A speaker at the Centre for Medical History’s seminar series mentioned the ‘medical humanities’ just in passing, but it instantly captured my attention. I went away to investigate further, and soon felt that I had found my intellectual home; my first publication was actually in the Journal of Medical Humanities. I spent the years of my PhD working away on my medical history thesis, while collaborating with researchers from other fields to organise events and exhibitions on the theme of ‘medicine, health and the arts’. As a historian I was also fascinated by the background of the field itself, particularly the representation of arts and humanities as a ‘humanising’ force in its early years.

So why did the medical humanities capture my imagination in this way? The appeal of the field, for me, lies in its interdisciplinarity and inclusiveness. It also has great potential for innovation and impact. My more recent projects have allowed me, in particular, to explore relationships between health and design. I have often stepped far outside my comfort zone in these collaborations, and enjoyed every second of doing so. The pictures below show a couple of my Wellcome/AHRC-funded collaborative grants from the last decade: I have explored what a humanities angle can bring to projects on sensory design, ranging from making tactile communication devices to developing ‘immersive experiences’ on nature and the non-visual senses.

Clockwise: Still from project videos for ‘InTouch’ (AHRC), image from workshop on Senses and Health/care Environments (Wellcome), and ‘Exploring Nature & Wellbeing through the Non-Visual Senses’ (AHRC/ESPRC)

Throughout these projects I have been privileged to learn from collaboration not only with academics from other disciplines, but also from artists, technologists, designers, and medical professionals. Right now, I am working with fantastic partners for the ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare’ project: GOSH Arts at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Fresh Arts at North Bristol NHS Trust, and Architects for Health. We have a real opportunity to shape hospital environments, as well as to develop new creative research methods that others can use in future. I am already learning so much from collaboration with hospital arts organisations, not least from their capacity to come up with quick and innovative solutions to challenges – their response to Covid-19 has been truly inspiring.

I am also excited by the opportunity to rethink approaches to historical research, using the creative research methods that the team develops in this project. What happens if we do oral history interviews as a walking tour or a mapping exercise instead of an in-situ interview? How might objects and sensory prompts help us to reach sensory memory of hospitals? There is so much potential in this field to innovate. I have also recently been leading a small interdisciplinary group to explore alternative ‘outputs’ to the traditional academic monograph, including rethinking the physical form of publications on hospital senses. One member of our team has even been investigating how to add the historical smell of hospitals to paper (coming soon, we hope: a book that smells of carbolic soap!)

Winning the ‘leadership award’ for medical humanities means a huge amount, because the field itself is so important to me. I have always found the medical humanities community extremely supportive and welcoming, grounded in dialogue and exchange of ideas. I hope that I have helped to build on this research culture by running interdisciplinary projects, networks and training schemes. That said, I do not think that ‘leadership’ is ever truly possible as a lone figure, especially in such a collaborative and interdisciplinary field. Networks are only as strong as their members, and I have been privileged to work with so many inspiring people over the last decade. I look forward to many more years of doing so.

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