Exhibition Review: Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis

One hundred years after the 1918 flu epidemic, Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis opened at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY). The exhibition, which ran through April 2019 in association with the New York Academy of Medicine, asked visitors to consider the complex relationship between New Yorkers and pathogenic microorganisms, both historically and in the present. It was also the first arm of the Wellcome Collection’s global and collaborative Contagious Cities project. This larger initiative asks how global urban centers have shifted humans’ encounters with infectious diseases and includes exhibitions, lectures, art installations, and other events illuminating local histories in New York, London, Berlin, Geneva, and several cities in Hong Kong.

1960 Vicks VapoRub ad originally published in Family Circle magazine. (Family Circle Magazine/Flickr)

Curated by Sarah M. Henry, Rebecca Hayes Jacobs, and Anne Garner, Germ City offered audiences a microhistory of the networks pathogens forged between people, places, and institutions in New York City, primarily from the nineteenth-century to the present. The exhibition was divided among five thematic sections: microbes and the metropolis, containment, investigation, care, and the urban environment. Each section had a corresponding table within the exhibition space—appropriately biomorphic in shape—full of material and visual artifacts that facilitated visitors’ explorations of each theme. The sheer diversity of materials gathered to tell this story, coupled with their imaginative juxtaposition across time and medium, was the most compelling aspect of the exhibition for me. A twenty-first century plastic tub of Vaporub, for example, sat comfortably beside elegant glass bottles from the 1890s that once held camphorated oil. Ivory points once used for smallpox vaccinations and lantern slides of nineteenth-century New York streets before and after sanitization exemplify another unexpected, yet revealing, partnership.

The presentation of the majority of these materials on tables, accompanied by many moveable chairs, invited exhibition goers to take their time moving through Germ City and get up close and personal with each and every artifact. At the same time, this mode of display leveled the kinds of hierarchies often enacted in museum spaces, where viewers may be required to remain at a distance from artifacts, or where separate and less prominent display sections for everyday, ephemeral objects—like the Vaporub tub—versus more rarified artifacts can diminish the important role commonplace objects play in shaping history.

A cluster of objects exploring the theme of containment highlights the kind of provocative curatorial work the exhibition did best. The educational text accompanying this section primed viewers to understand how borders and boundaries—be they political, geographical, material, or metaphorical—have been wielded against pathogens in New York for centuries. This “war to contain disease,” the wall text warns, “is replete with collateral damage:” namely, the stigmatization and ostracizing of individuals and whole communities.1 Just beside this text, the viewer was confronted with a wall of public health posters, alternately displaying preserved early twentieth-century objects and contemporary replications. While the posters’ saturated colors and Instagram-ready, gridded display initially attracted the eye, their text revealed their disciplinary effects on New Yorkers: failure to report infection to the public health officer will result in a fine.

On the table facing these posters, museum-goers saw an Underwood & Underwood stereographic view card positioned behind a stereoscope. The card pictures recent arrivals to Ellis Island undergoing eye examinations. As the exhibition’s accompanying educational text notes, this was presented as screening for trachoma, a chronic infection of the eye that could cause blindness. Immigrants, especially Jewish populations from eastern Europe, were stigmatized as carriers of the disease.2 Yet this bacterial infection was fairly rare, suggesting that the exam—and its representation and circulation as a stereographic view—did more to fan anti-immigration sentiments than to diagnose and treat disease.

Finally, just beside this stereograph, the viewer encountered Jordan Eagles’s Blood Mirror. Eagles created the imposing, seven-foot tall sculpture by encasing the blood donations of 59 gay, bisexual, and/or transgender men in resin. The sculpture challenges the FDA’s discriminatory blood donation policy, which prohibited gay and bisexual men from donating blood at all from 1992 to 2015 and, after revision in 2015, only allowed donation if the donor remained celibate for one year. The ban—and especially the shift in 2015, when HIV/AIDS screenings, treatments, and prophylactics were available in the US—continues to pathologize homosexuality, stigmatize living with HIV/AIDS, and stoke homophobia. In a way, Blood Mirror refracts the FDA’s quarantine of men who have sex with men by creating a literal boundary from the blood of these donors. This sanguine wall, whose combination of blood and resin creates a smooth, reflective surface, simultaneously illuminates the discriminatory isolation and pathologization of LGBTQ+ people as well as the many life-saving donations lost because of these policies. At the same time, by reflecting the viewer’s body against the blood of these donors, Eagles asks viewers to confront their own relationship to this policy and history, as just another body among many reflected in the mirror.

Together, the posters, the stereographic view, and Blood Mirror revealed the material, metaphorical, geographic, and social boundaries that have shaped quarantine in New York from the late nineteenth-century through the present, illustrating a continued—if shifting—relationship between quarantine, surveillance, and discrimination. What’s more, these objects underline visual culture’s role in extending or confronting efforts to contain disease. As a viewer particularly attuned to art and the visual’s role in mediating public conceptions of history, I was impressed by the connections the MCNY drew between material culture and fine art to help audiences understand quarantine in New York’s past and present.

Germ City certainly provided a compelling microhistory of New York’s relationship with germs, and successfully contextualized this history within broader histories of medicine, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, among other lenses. Yet if Germ City is ultimately part of the larger Contagious Cities initiative, I would have appreciated a nod to New York’s place in this larger, global context within the exhibition itself. Contagious Cities proposes to host “local conversations around the global challenges of epidemic preparedness” and to investigate “the role of urban areas in causing and controlling infectious disease in our densely-connected world.” Yet Germ City did not connect its investigation of New York to the other cities participating in the Wellcome program or broader global contexts. This feels like a missed opportunity, particularly given geography’s far from neutral role in discussions of pandemics. Recall, for example, intense public fears surrounding international travel in the wake of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, which were catalyzed by the return of medical workers from West Africa and which have deeper roots in the historical pathologization of racial difference and non-Western geographies. (It should be noted that while the exhibition did address the 2014 Ebola epidemic, it was only in relation to the single New York case of Dr. Craig Spencer.) Significantly, these historical themes were considered within Germ City, and their investigation would have only been richer with more explicit curatorial linkages between the local and the global.

With that said, the tight local focus does adhere to the MCNY’s mission of illuminating deep and diverse stories about New York City for all New Yorkers and visitors to the city, a mission recently reaffirmed with the opening of NY at its Core, the Museum’s first permanent exhibition. Viewed through this lens, one could term Germ City’s success infectious.

Notes

  1. Wall text, “Contagion,” Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY. Return to text.
  2. Howard Markel, “‘The Eyes Have It’: Trachoma, the Perception of Disease, the United States Public Health Service, and the American Jewish Immigration Experience, 1897-1924,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74, no. 3, (2000), 527. Return to text.

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