One of the key jobs of the curator is rounding up and analyzing material culture, the objects that we shape and that shape us. Brochures, buttons, syringes, cereal boxes – almost anything that we touch, wear, eat, look at, or use in some capacity over the course of our lives qualifies. These objects can support or enrich a more document-based style of history, or they can be the entry points into stories yet untold. Either way, material objects have social and historical significance, and it is our task to see and unpack this significance.
So when my curatorial supervisor in the Division of Science and Medicine told me that I would be researching the history of cholesterol, with particular attention to artifacts, I was caught a little off guard. The science of cholesterol is so abstract. How many of us have actually had a chance to look up close at what it does to the inside of our hearts? Without some serious training in organic chemistry, the series of biochemical reactions that’s involved in cholesterol’s synthesis in the liver, for example, is nothing more than a set of opaque formulas. Cholesterol is a complicated and elusive substance, and not just for non-experts like me: thirteen Nobel laureates have shared ten Nobel prizes related in some way to cholesterol. Scientists who can manage to illuminate something significant about this chemical’s structure, manufacture, or metabolism are widely praised. Cholesterol is still the subject of countless papers in the top scientific journals, and unsolved mysteries abound. Some of us might know our cholesterol number, but it’s just that–a number–a seemingly random value with (we are told) serious implications, but no immediate visual, aural, or even physical impact.
And this was the problem. A good museum exhibit should be able stimulate visually, aurally, and even tactilely or kinesthetically. Visitors don’t come to a museum to read. They come to experience a piece of history, to gaze at or listen to or touch something unusual, or to see a familiar object in a new way. What cholesterol artifacts would museum visitors find educational? What would they find interesting (not always the same thing as educational!)? A “cholesterol apparatus” used in laboratory testing in the 1930s? Medical textbooks? A failed cholesterol-lowering drug from the 1960s? A carton of eggs? When it comes to the National Museum of American History, is the hard science of cholesterol really the most important part of the story?
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for Part II, which will be posted tomorrow. In the meantime, share your thoughts with us! What objects would you hope to see selected to illustrate the history of cholesterol?
Caroline Lieffers is an intern in the Division of Science and Medicine at the National Museum of American History.