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Virtual Museum Project Prompts Reflection Among Medical Professionals

RX Muesum

Sometimes, things can be both conspicuous and serendipitous. That is the case when it comes to Rx/Museum.

An online exhibit seeking to use art as a medium for reflection in health care workers and researchers, Rx/Museum launched with a July 20 post called “While I Breathe.” The artwork used as a prompt for such reflection is a photo of a run-down cinema in Asbestos, Quebec, a town once thriving because of the nearby mine where deadly asbestos was dug out. And the post went up months after the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak and just a handful of weeks since protests against police violence swept through the country. Both topics featured heavily in the post, and set the stage for the broad range of topics to come that all feel so timely and pertinent.

“We originally were really interested in how you bring the museum into the hospital and bridge civic and health care landscapes,” said Lyndsay Hoy, MD, an assistant professor of Clinical Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the Perelman School of Medicine who serves as a faculty director of Rx/Museum.

But COVID-19 caused the organizers to rethink the approach to the long-planned project.

“Now, being digital and remote in so many of the things that we do, it just seems like the right time for it,” Hoy said.

A partnership between Penn, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Barnes Foundation, and Slought Foundation, Rx/Museum was funded with help from the Sachs Program in Arts Innovation. Each Monday, the project presents a new piece of visual art from the collection of one of the artistic partners. Accompanying them are pieces of writing. The post, which lives on the exhibit’s website and is sent via email to subscribers, provides information and context about the visual art and, most importantly, ends with a prompt for reflection.

These prompts touch on a variety of subjects, including everything from questions on the ways online education might change how health care workers are trained to a reframing what it means to have a “good death” in current society, or challenges of society’s sterotypical images of health care workers.

“We’re trying to select artworks that help articulate themes and dialogues that one might not have time to reflect on and discuss regularly,” Hoy said.

Hoy’s partner in this project is Aaron Levy, PhD, a senior lecturer in English and the History of Art at Penn, who also serves as a faculty director for Rx/Museum. He was also a member of the team that created the Penn Listening Lab, a project that debuted in 2019 and focused on audio storytelling centered on healthcare.

“We want to challenge the traditional hierarchy of medicine by embracing the democratizing aspects of the arts and humanities,” Levy said. “We’re using art as a vehicle to inform clinicians’ understanding of the communities they care for, and hopefully inspire caregivers to act as agents of interpersonal, structural, and institutional change.”

The exhibit is considered a pilot program that is set to go for an entire year Well in advance, the 52 pieces of art were selected, but the written posts are put together close to the posting time. As such, current events, particularly COVID-19, heavily inform them.

“While it predates the pandemic, we hope that the project is helping to render more visible the psychological toll of the intersecting health crises and epidemics facing the medical community at this time,” Levy said.

A post from Aug. 31, for example, features a demolished ambulance, which is a still from a film made by a resident of Gaza City called “Ambulance.” While the film was centered on a recent war in the Gaza Strip, the post also acknowledges, “Second Trauma,” a phenomenon shared among health care workers who experience trauma in the course of treating their patients. The post poses questions about how to protect clinicians from the mental strain of their jobs — especially the round-the-clock battle against COVID-19.

The project seems to have struck a chord. Organically, with almost no automatic sign-ups or pre-loaded lists, more than 600 subscribers have opted to receive the Rx/Museum email, with some recipients as far away as Stanford or Yale.

“The opportunity to work alongside such an interdisciplinary team spanning clinical medicine, medical anthropology, art theory and social justice has been rewarding, and this aspect is eliciting interest in Rx/Museum as well,” Levy said.

While the project will continue well into next year, the team is thinking ahead to how the project could evolve and continue to serve its audience. One potential expansion is giving subscribers to the exhibit the chance to explore artworks by theme via customized virtual tours, complete with embedded podcasts and video clips that could be utilized in small classroom settings.

“We encourage our subscribers to incorporate our content into independent study models and small group discussions in clinical and classroom settings,” Hoy said. “The Rx/Museum initiative is a reproducible framework for the integration of thoughtful visual arts engagement into best practices for humanistic and socially responsible professionalism, faculty development and medical education programming.”

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