Roosevelt Island Featured in Exhibit on Museum Mile

Roosevelt Island's distinguished history in medicine, healthcare, and treatment of communicative diseases, is on display as part of the fascinating exhibit “Germ City” at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY).

The Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS) contributed historic objects from its collections to this exhibit, including a sign from Goldwater Hospital. Coler Hospital loaned an iron lung, a nearly-obsolete mechanical respirator fitted over a person's body, to the museum for the exhibit.

Thousands of polio patients were treated at Goldwater Hospital. At the time, those who lost the ability to breathe on their own were confined in iron lung machines.

“I think the exhibit Germ City is very enlightening. It gives a true view of how the city handled epidemics and public health medicine, especially at the beginning if the 20th century. The exhibit is suitable for school age kids and above and holds special appeal to curious teenagers," said RIHS President Judith Berdy.

Humans and microbes have always co‐habited and their relationship has had a profound influence on history, especially in cities, where the movements of people, goods, and germs intersect 24/7.

Germ City is organized by MCNY in collaboration with its neighboring institution, The New York Academy of Medicine, and Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation that aims to improve health for everyone.

Why Germs?

The exhibit explores the complex and fascinating history of infectious disease and epidemic outbreaks in New York City. The storytelling involves government officials, urban planners, medical professionals, businesses, activists, and ordinary people and focuses on the personal, cultural, and political, as well as the medical dimensions of contagion.

Germs are a part of life. They are the reason we wash our hands, cover our mouths when we sneeze, and take care when we get close to others. But the bacteria and viruses that inhabit and sometimes infect our bodies are also a major, if microscopic, feature of our urban environment.

The history of New York has been plagued, quite literally, by a variety of contagious diseases. Among them was the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide a century ago this year. In this era of American history that is relatively epidemic free, it’s hard to remember such deadly times.

"Our world is now one of hand sanitizers and cleansing wipes of every size and for every need- that also help us to abate the microbes that provoke disease and contagion. On the centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic, it feels more important than ever to explore the surprising connections between people and pathogens,” said Ken Arnold, Creative Director of Wellcome.

The Exhibition

Divided into five sections—“Microbes and the Metropolis,”“Containment,” “Investigation,” “Care,” and “UrbanEnvironment”—Germ City tells stories about health and illness, immune systems and antibiotics, breakthroughs in treatments and vaccinations, and the lives and struggles of ordinary New Yorkers.But it is equally about the structure of urban life: housing, water systems, sanitation, individual and collective rights, and public policy at every level. And, because responses to disease so closely reflect the dynamic of their times, the history of contagion inevitably shines alight on social injustices and conflicts as they have played out over the generations.

In its layout and design, Germ City is a welcome respite from exhibits where you need to stand over artifacts and look down as the exhibit has a number of stools to sit on. Germ City contains a wealth of public health information. Quarantine signs for different diseases – such as mumps and measles, are on prominent display.

“Don’t go in” was the message on many a door behind which a patient was suffering from a contagious disease.The exhibit’s wallpaper, aptly a picture of bacteria, serves as the logo for the show. And clever educational tools abound Germ City such as toys made from fake fur in shapes in all of the germs - stuffed in the shape of the germ cholera, TB, and diphtheria. There’s also a box for every disease with materials you can read perched comfortably from a stool.

When tiny germs interact with a massive metropolis like New York City, no aspect of life goes untouched. The exhibition has a hybrid gallery and library where visitors can view historical artifacts alongside contemporary artworks created for the exhibition, delve into the exhibition’s themes with a curated selection of books, and access a wide range of perspectives through digital interactives. Visitors can actually touch artifacts such as maps and copies of journals. And array of Public Health Posters, rendered with eye-catching graphic arts, demonstrate the commitment to communicate effectively with the public.

In this day and age, we forget that public health was a continual campaign in communications. With the myriad graphics and artifacts, the exhibit interweaves historical and contemporary perspectives, blending art, history, and science to explore the meaning of disease in the urban context.

Not Only Germs, Art Too

The exhibition will also feature the work of Blast Theory, a pioneering artist group based in Brighton, England, who create interactive art to explore social and political questions; multimedia artist and filmmaker Mariam Ghani; artist and designer Ekene Ijeoma; and artist Jordan Eagles, whose “Blood Mirror,” a sculpture created with 59 blood donations from gay, bisexual, transgender men, are on view.

Other featured artists include Christopher Payne, Gran Fury, Glenn Ligon for Visual AIDS, and Louisa Bertman and Bob Civil for the LGBT Community Center.

Contagious Cities

Germ City is the inaugural exhibition of Contagious Cities, a major international project led by Wellcome that explores the interplay of people and pathogens in urban contexts. Combining different perspectives and expertise, partners in the project co‐produce exhibitions, interactive experiences, artist residencies, events, broadcasts and more.

Contagious Cities is being staged in New York, Geneva, and HongKong. “We are honored to be the New York anchor of this three‐city global initiative and to work with a foundation like Wellcome,” said Whitney W. Donhauser, the President and Ronay Menschel Directorof the Museum of the City of New York. “As a historic port city, New York is a compelling location to study the complex relationship between microbes, migration, and the metropolis.“

The Academy is pleased to partner with our neighbor The Museum of the City of New York and with the Wellcome Trust on this important exhibition and program series,” said Judith A. Salerno, MD, MS, President of The New York Academy of Medicine. “This effort brings together our collective expertise on the history of health in New York and the impact that outbreaks of disease over time have had on NewYork City’s residents, infrastructure, and its many interlocking systems including housing, urban planning, water systems, migration, and public health policies.”

The Germ City exhibit, at MCNY is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street now through April 28, 2019.

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