July 24 2019

Spit Spreading: an Ambitious Project in Progress

Nancy Hill is Special Projects Manager at the Mütter Museum. She is part of the core team of internal staff leading Spit Spreads Death. Here, she outlines the project and introduces the partners involved in the multifaceted exhibition, artist project, and public health programming.

What happens when disease strikes a city of two million people, sickening a half-million and killing more than 12,000 in just six weeks? In the fall of 1918, the last months of World War I, Philadelphia hosted the largest parade in its history. Within 72 hours, all hospitals in the city were full.

In August, 2018, I started as special projects manager at the Mütter Museum and assumed leadership of Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia. The project includes a long-term exhibition, a public health fair, and a re-imagining of the 1918 Liberty Loan fundraising parade, a catalyst in spreading the flu.

"This is the most expensive and complex project the museum has done to date."

Despite the exhibition opening being over a year away, I came to Spit Spreads Death late—there had already been two years of grant writing, proposals, and project planning by the time I began—and had much catch-up to do. We had been lucky to receive support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and the Groff Family Memorial Trust. All that planning and support has been necessary: this is the most expensive and complex project the museum has done to date, with many adjoining facets and new components.

First, and most obvious is the medical history component; we are the Mütter Museum after all. Robert D. Hicks, PhD, museum director; Jane E. Boyd, PhD, historical curator; and doctoral candidate Nicholas Bonneau, records researcher, have been working to uncover accurate data and overlooked stories of history. They have found that much of the Philadelphia influenza story has been overshadowed by World War I, still in progress as the pandemic struck. Our research team has created a comprehensive timeline of this “forgotten pandemic” and its impact on Philadelphia.

Next, and unique to this project, Beth Uzwiak, PhD, a medical anthropologist and cofounder of Ethnologica, joined the project as our community liaison. Community outreach and participation are significant pieces of this puzzle. In an exhibition addressing what was likely the biggest failure of public health in local history, we would be negligent not to address modern public health issues and connect our audiences to community resources. Beth, along with internal museum staff, has been working to represent contemporary Philadelphians in the exhibition and link them to the historical experience of the pandemic in their own neighborhoods.

Third, design. With so much new and underrepresented data, local history, and personal narratives to configure within a small museum space, we are working with Keith Ragone, exhibit designer, and Mike Tedeschi, digital interactive designer, to shape the exhibition experience. Their work to date promises an engaging, fascinating, and scary exploration of the pandemic that blends statistical data, visual aids, and individual and family perspectives by the Philadelphians who experienced the tragic event.

"Managing this project has been a challenge. But it has also been the most interesting and exciting job I’ve ever had..."

Finally, art. We have commissioned art before at the Mütter. With funding from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, we worked with the Quay Brothers, stop-motion cinema auteurs, to create a meditation on our collections, and we present temporary exhibitions of art in all media. However, this is the first time we have integrated the artwork into a historical medical exhibition and community outreach. Pioneering this effort is Blast Theory, artists  Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr, and Nick Tandavanitj, as well as their support staffers John Hunter, Sarah Clark, and many more. Blast Theory has extensive experience creating and executing public, community participatory performance art. Curating the arts component is Trevor Smith, Curator of the Present Tense at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. For our project, the artists conceived a commemorative parade, which they are organizing, that will take place on Saturday, September 28,--101 years after the Fourth Liberty Loan Parade. The parade itself will feature illuminated baffles that allow the participants, as they walk the route to City Hall, to experience a private meditation as they hold a sign bearing the name of one of the flu dead. Blast Theory will film the event and edit it into a short loop that will play within the exhibition and will be shared online. The art film thus places living community members (including descendants of flu victims) in an exhibition.

With so much going on, managing this project has been a challenge. But it has also been the most interesting and exciting job I’ve ever had, and I’m eager to share what we’ve been up to. Stay tuned for more information on the project online and at events, and more posts from project team members here.

Oh, and—don’t spit!

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