Diseases of Modern Life: Workshop and Challenge

We were very privileged today to be able to welcome Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Dr Catherine Cherlwood from the University of Oxford Humanities Centre (TORCH) to our lesson to introduce an exciting project on the theme of ‘Diseases of Modern Life’. This forms part of our wider engagement with objects and museum learning.

We started off by looking at a statement made by a Victorian doctor, James Chrichton Browne, who observed in 1860: “We live in an age of electricity, of railways, of gas, and of velocity in thought and action.  In the course of one brief month more impressions are conveyed to our brains than reached those of our ancestors in the course of years, and our mentalising machines are called upon for a greater amount of fabric than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime”. 


We discussed how this might not be what you might expect a doctor to focus on – how usually our expectations of doctors were to be concerned about bodied and medication rather than technology. We then looked at another doctor’s comment about the dangers of catching trains! It was not just trains that changed the pace of life in Victorian lives, but also the introduction of the ‘Penny Post’, whereby people could buy a stamp and post letters – in some cities this enabled people to exchange and receive responses to letters up to five times a day. 

Catherine and Sally encouraged you all to think about comparisons with the number of instant messages, texts, snap chats, and similar technological exchanges has increased in modern life and how they made you feel. Many of you observed that they could make you feel overwhelmed and anxious. However, others noted that it enabled you to make new friends and be in better touch with friends and family. 

In our Rumble Museum’s Design and Technology collection in the Library, you can see artefacts representing the rapid changes in technology through the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 


Another transformation was the use of the telegram. We talked about how in some ways this allowed us to communicate in beneficial ways – such as the cartoon depicting policeman tracking down a murderer. We explored how the telegram was much less personal than a handwritten letter. We also looked briefly at the development of Morse Code technology!


Catherine and Sally then set you all the challenge of creating your own response to the material we have discussed, and how technology has impacted lives throughout history. Your response could be a poem, cartoon, or any other idea you might have! All responses will be displayed in St Luke’s Chapel at the Christmas Lights Festival on 16th November – this is your holiday homework and all tasks must be submitted by 2nd November to me. 


There is also an extra competition which is voluntary to enter, involving designing a display to be projected onto the front of the old Radcliffe Infirmary. This needs to be emailed to the address on your handout by Monday 29th October. 

We are really grateful to Catherine and Sally for this very engaging session on technology and how it affects us. and we are all very excited to see what responses you come up with! 

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