Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Women Before Me

Do you ever wonder what women were doing all of history while men were starting wars, riding horses and becoming Shakespeare? I’ve always thought about that. I mean, I’m a smart person. What would I be doing with this brain if in 1565 my society made childbearing and family rendering my sole purpose?

I’d be doing the same things I do now—conducting experiments at parties, making googly eyes at well-written science articles, and fulfilling my desire to help people. I would find kinship with the women featured at the Folger Shakespeare Library Beyond Home Remedy Exhibit. These women created and recorded elaborate recipes and remedies for common ailments as well as aggressive diseases still afflicting people today (like TB). Yikes! Not much has changed.

The exhibit is small and mighty as it displayed cookbooks in which remedies were shared. It sits in a dark hall at the entrance to the library, plagued by kids in khakis. I quickly found solace as I stood in front of the first case, featuring items that I use when I cook: turmeric, ginger and lavender. They also featured several touch screens that were user-friendly and served up good facts.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I asked several questions in this order:

1. Wow! They’re using spices, roots, and weird things like skulls and snakeskin while following incredibly complex instructions. Were these women accused of witchcraft?
2. Neat! They are distilling and using elements like sulfur! Could these women be known as chemists?
3. Has this stuff ever been scientifically tested? Is there any molecular process behind the success of their work?

Excellently designed, the exhibit’s flow was in line with my thought process. Yes, some women were accused of witchcraft. Yes, their work was very similar to chemistry. Margaret Cavendish (1624-74) was a writer and scientist featured throughout the exhibit, and she proposed the question: What woman was such a chymist as Paracelsus? Finally, yes, there was a lot of evidence scribbled in margins that suggested these women understood the scientific principals behind their work—processes like the diuretic properties and the medical uses of wormwood.

I took a second lap to enjoy their phone tour. For those who have not used this, you simply call a provided phone number and enter in numbers associated with displays. This service allowed me to hear from experts in the field (professors, curators—all women) and learn that Cavendish poked fun at remedies suggested by doctors.

The negatives of the exhibit focus on patron comprehension. The instructions for making snail water were difficult to follow. Although I can appreciate that the exhibit would have lost some of its integrity if the language were changed from 1600’s vernacular to present day, BUT I CAN HAS SNAIL WATER AT HOME? In addition, people may benefit from a take home message that connects the material with present day medicine. Finally, (and I may be a little biased as a woman, a cook, and a scientist) I believe this piece of history to be fascinating enough to fill more than one great hall. Tell me more!

The Beyond Home Remedies exhibit at the Folder-Shakespeare Library is a great place to learn about those who preceded me as a woman in the laboratory and in the kitchen. The space was quiet and offered just enough facts to keep me entertained but not overwhelmed. Finally, I would have liked to see more material presented and have it compared to present day.

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