The International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS) bills itself as “North America’s Only Museum Devoted to Surgery,” and so my expectations prior to visiting were pretty high. I was hoping for cool interactive elements, possibly some weird specimens in jars (jellied spleen, anyone?), and a well-organized narrative of the development of modern surgical science from a global perspective.
Unfortunately, I struggled to find a cohesive narrative in the IMSS. The layout of the museum felt disjointed, as each individual exhibit seemed to clash rather than mesh with the ones around it. Each exhibit had its strengths, but overall I was frustrated by what I perceived as a lack of structure and a strange imbalance across the museum in the interpretive strength of the exhibits. The iPhone app provided by the museum was helpful in navigating this disjointed narrative, but it also had significant drawbacks and occasionally felt redundant.
Downloading and installing the app was straightforward, and once I had turned my phone’s Bluetooth function on, I didn’t have any trouble with basic operation of the app. Occasionally, the app would send me notifications about objects or exhibit content on a different floor, but those small quirks were not distracting enough to detract from the overall experience. The app allows the user to choose from four different tour “interest areas,” about the house itself and the woman who lived there, highlights from the surgical collections, “Architectural Fun Facts,” and “Morbid Morsels,” a “seasonal” tour. Designating these as “tours” was, in my opinion, a little misleading, because rather than taking you around the house on a particular route following a particular narrative, the app sent notifications when you were in a room with a tour item on it.
I opted for the “Morbid Morsels” tour. It started out strong; on the first floor, I received a notification pointing me to a paragraph about William Burke and William Hare, the notorious nineteenth-century body snatchers who occasionally snatched bodies who weren’t quite dead yet.
Burke and Hare were interesting, but had very little to do with the room I was in on the first floor, a text-heavy exhibit on “Surgicogenomics and Diagnostic Detectives.” Having the app in that particular room was helpful, particularly because I don’t have a head for science (I haven’t taken science in years) and I was more interested in the content of the tour than the content of the exhibit. But the exhibit and the “morbid morsel” had very little to do with each other, which seemed counterproductive. The goal of a mobile tour like this one should be to use parts of existing exhibits to take visitors through a narrative distinct from the ones presented in the exhibits.
Another stop on the tour, in the Orthopedics room on the fourth floor, caught my attention pretty quickly.
I don’t think I could ever saw off someone’s leg, but thanks for making me think about it! This particular notification both grabbed my attention and sent me searching for a nineteenth-century bone saw kit, which, according to the app, a skilled doctor could use to amputate a limb in less than two minutes. Here, the push notification format of the tour was an advantage. As a user, I didn’t have to do much; information was sent to me and packaged in a compelling notification. To access it, all I had to do was swipe. And it sent me on a scavenger hunt of sorts, skimming through the case to find the bone saw.
The Morbid Morsels tour was engaging and interesting, in a gross, Halloween-esque way, but it lacked a strong narrative structure. As a user, I emerged with some new, fun factoids, but very little sense of structure or purpose. This part of the app had so much potential, particularly because each visitor had the option to choose from four tours, and so the museum experience could become personalized. Unfortunately, the lack of interpretation and structure to the tour didn’t add another interpretive approach, it simply added more facts.
Another key part of the app was an interactive map of the house, which presented additional information about the exhibitions in each room, and about the house itself and the people who had lived there. This part of the app also had potential to add another layer of interpretation to the museum, but was far more successful in its interpretation of the house than in its interpretation of the surgical exhibits.
The mansion itself was built for Eleanor Robinson Countiss, a Chicago heiress, who lived there with her family in the early part of the 20th century. There is no interpretation of the mansion or Eleanor’s life in the museum; the only interpretation appears in the app, as one goes through the interactive map. Details about each room appeared in conjunction with information about Eleanor and her family and their involvement in the world around them, particularly World War I and the home front efforts. Eleanor, a socialite, was also heavily involved in charity efforts, and her story was just as interesting as the surgical science presented in the physical exhibits. This was one of the app’s strengths. Eleanor’s story and the story of the mansion are not necessarily of interest to every visitor, and it makes sense why the museum chose not to include them in any of the physical exhibits. However, including that narrative on the app makes it accessible to those who are interested, and gives the museum visitor the possibility to engage on another level with the material aspects of the museum around them.
While the app’s focus on the history of the mansion and the family who lived there was one of its major successes, its interpretation of the exhibits through the map was one of its major drawbacks. Frequently, the information provided by the app through the map was a restatement of the text on the museum labels, and added nothing new to a visitor’s
Can you read that label?
understanding of either the object or the narrative of the exhibit. For instance, in the library, the app repeated almost word-for-word the sign in the corner of the room, explaining that some of the books were wrapped in white tissue to prevent them being damaged by car exhaust in the air from nearby Lake Shore Drive. In the Hall of Immortals, a hall of stone sculptures of great contributors to surgical science, the information in the app was even less detailed than on the museum labels. The one advantage, in that particular room, was that the labels were pasted on the wall almost behind the statues, making them very difficult to read. Having an abbreviated version of the label on the app made it possible to know the basics about the statues without having to stick one’s nose up against the wall.
The app had the potential to provide several interesting and engaging routes of interpretation for the IMSS and its exhibits. Unfortunately, in many instances, it didn’t live up to that potential. Merely repeating the information on the labels was one of the app’s major weaknesses. And while the selection of certain objects to be included in the app is in itself a created narrative, the app did not do as much as it could have to enhance and advance the narrative the IMSS tried to present. The general lack of narrative in the IMSS overall certainly contributed to this; however, the app is a space in which the designers and curators could have worked together to develop the narrative that was missing from parts of the museum. It was most successful in its exploration of Eleanor Robinson Countiss and the material aspects of the mansion, because that narrative was not present at all in the physical exhibits. The app was unique, and functioned well, but, like the museum, generally struggled to present a cohesive story.