A Night at the Museum: Medicine and Psychology in the Ancient Mediterranean

Researchers enjoyed an interactive tour of the ANU Classics Museum
14 October 2022

When we think about advances in health and wellbeing it is not unusual to place emphasis and importance on new discoveries. However, looking at history offers different perspectives that can spark ideas and provide understanding about current practices.

With this idea in mind, Dr Lillian Smyth from the School of Medicine and Psychology and Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney, Friends' Lecturer and Curator at the ANU Classics Museum, formulated an event to bring researchers from psychology and medicine to the museum to consider health and the human experience through art and history.

“The tour focused on ancient Mediterranean objects in the museum that spoke to the core research interests within the School of Medicine and Psychology including human health and function, inclusive societies and the relationship between communities and health - with expert contexualisation from the tour guides Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney and A/Prof Caillan Davenport,” Dr Smyth advised.

“For example, a set of funerary items, led to a discussion about death, infant mortality, aging, social class, enslavement and society. A set of bronze surgical instruments included discussion of attitudes to medicine, healthcare and doctors; and a set of ancient coins and busts, involved discussion about facial expression, emotion, representations of health, wealth, status and age,” Dr Smyth noted.

Dr Caitlin Pilbeam, a postdoctoral fellow in medicine, explained, “It was an interactive experience where we looked at, learned about, and discussed a range of items, and also got to touch some of them. We examined the beautifully-rendered scale model of Rome and the gnarled surfaces of sarcophagi, and even got to handle the dismembered toe of a smooth marble statue, which was incredibly detailed and surprisingly heavy. It was such a concrete demonstration of how the world is filled with things that people use every day, in the processes of living and dying, illness and wellness.”

“The tour guides did an excellent job of tracing the connecting sinews between medicine, psychology, and daily life. Bringing psychology and medicine researchers together to engage with this was an excellent way of starting conversations and revealing contrasting and complementary approaches.” Dr Pilbeam added.

Dr Joanne Rathbone, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology said, “As researchers we often focus on the new and unknown, but this event was a great opportunity to look back and see how people used to live, their lifestyles and the ways they looked after their health and communities.”

“The discussions around the model of ancient Rome reminded me of how privileged we are today and all the little things we take for granted, like clean water and plumbing and access to simple essentials like soap, or olive oil which was enormously expensive. It was also interesting to hear about the role that theatre and gathering spaces played in building a sense of community and social cohesion.”

“I’ve always seen medicine and psychology as unique yet complementary, and this event did a great job at highlighting that. Each discipline is equipped to provide important insights into human functioning. I am excited to see what connections and new discoveries emerge within the ANU School of Medicine and Psychology,” Dr Rathbone enthused.