Staff Profiles: Q&A with Monica A. Walker

The front of house staff who welcome you; the people that tell you all about the history of the museum, Victorian surgery and herbal medicine on the weekend talks; the people that take you on walking tours about public health and history of crime in Southwark; the people that catalogue and care for the collection; the people that organize after-hours events; the people that inform you about what is going on; the volunteer who gives up his time to help at the museum…These people make up the living fabric of the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. We are delighted to introduce you to them and invite you to learn a bit more about them and the museum through these Q&A.

-So, who are you?

I am Mónica A. Walker.

-What is your role in the museum? What do you do? How long have you worked here?    

I am the official communications and marketing officer and the unofficial photographer at the museum. I basically try to make the museum, education programme, and our fantastic events be known through an efficient social media strategy, press releases, web updates, etc. I also coordinate our website and our blog. Have you read it? No? You should check it out, really! What else…? Ah! Yes! I have been working here for over a year now.

-Why the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret?

Victorian Nurse's Chatelaine and Belt.

Because they offered me a job doing something that I love and believe in!

-Have you always been interested in the History of Medicine?

No, not always. I have a Ph.D. in the History of Art, not Medicine. But I did write a paper on the iconography of the Medical Saints Cosmas and Damian at the intersection of medicine, magic, and religion from the Late Classical to Early Modern Period, which got me interested in the subject. Anyway, it just happens that now I have expanded my knowledge to include the history of medicine in the 18th and the 19th centuries in England. 

So if someone asks me how surgeons performed amputations in the 19th century, I could give a detail description of the procedure.

-If you had to choose one object in the collection as being particularly significant to you, which would it be?

The Victorian nurse’s chatelaine and belt. They are just beautifully crafted, and very useful at the same time–kind of like Batman’s utility belt for nurses. You never know when you are going to need scissors, a pencil, a piece of paper, a thimble, a mirror or a whistle while doing your rounds if you are a nurse in the Victorian era.

-Who is your favourite historical figure in the History of Medicine? Who is he/she? Why is he/she important?

Dr. James Barry.

That is an interesting question! I have learned about so many interesting historical figures in the history of medicine, but I would have to say Dr. James Miranda Stuart Barry (born Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1799) who was a military surgeon in the British army. I have always been fascinated by women who refused to comply with social norms. Actually, whether as a woman or as a transgender, Dr. Barry was able to follow his dream of becoming a surgeon by hiding her sex all his life. That kind of determination is to be admired specially when he did it so that he could serve others!

-Has working in the museum changed the way that you see the history of medicine?

Absolutely! I never paid that much attention to the history of medicine before. Like many people who have access to socialized medicine, I have taken it for granted. I never realized how the whole medical profession developed through a series of trial and errors, and that things that we consider to be normal today were laughed at or rejected back in the day (i.e. the use of antiseptics).

-What would you say the role of this museum is?

I think that the role of the museum should be didactic. It should start a conversation and provide interactions with the public through our space, our experts, and our objects. It is not a good thing to take for granted something as important as our health and the people that take care of it. Knowing about how things were in the past can help us appreciate what we have today and look forward to advancements in medicine in the future.

-If you could change one thing in the museum, what would it be?

Honestly, I wish we had public funding to make the museum free. Sadly, we depend on admission fees to keep the museum running.

-Can you share a memorable experience that you had with one of the many visitors that come to the Old Op?

I wrote about one of my experiences at some length here. In short, after I delivered a museum talk a lady from the public came to thank me because for the first time she had been able to make peace with her mother’s decision to donate her body to science. It was very touching to see such heartfelt gratitude reflected in her eyes. I did not know that I could have such an impact in a visitor’s life.

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