Behind the scenes at the Museum: Handling Medical Costume

The title for this post is an amalgamation of one of my favourite novels (a text set in York, it’s by Kate Atkinson, you need to read it) and one of my recent museum projects. The purpose of this post is fundamentally the latter; I just needed to use the pun…

I’ve been behind the scenes at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds doing some curatorial volunteering (as well as helping out in the galleries and education centre; the place is so vibrant and amazing) and I found the Medical costume store! Medical items – nurse uniforms, patient gowns, restraint jackets, capes (so many capes) and much more – ranging from the early 19th Century live here. Dress and medicine, my favourite parts of history and I was able to handle them all!


The museum is undergoing major redevelopment and to summarise, the whole of the store needs locating, auditing and transporting to a new place in the museum. I’ve been helping out with organising the costume store, from completing condition checks and placing everything in pretty numerical order. I have gained some great experience of collections management as well as coming across some really fascinating items (and battling ghosts, but that’s another story)

Out of the various nurses and midwifery uniforms the one that caught my eye was a simple straight blue dress; it has three-quarter length sleeves, one pocket and a collar that somewhat lacks in aesthetic value when compared to the traditional white collars of its day. Any ideas what this particular nurse uniform was? It’s dated from the early 1940s and the red initials on the chest state ARP.

It’s an Air Raid Precaution nurse uniform. I’m familiar with the introduction of Air Raid Protections by the government in 1935 and have come across various articles and photographs of Air Raid Wardens, yet there is a lack of scholarship on ARP nurses. tyBHVkyk.jpg

This uniform was donated from a rural location in England suggesting that its wearer was potentially a voluntary ARP nurse, assisting with the war effort if it got to the specific location.

Another aspect I found compelling was to be place the evolution, and innovation, of items past and present physically next to one another. For example, the late 19th Century patient gowns in the collection are inspired by traditional linen night dresses and are embellished with lace and frill. By the 20th century the gowns became more basic in design and could be removed easily. Fast forward to the modern gowns we know today, they are more clinical, practical and temporary. I use the term ‘temporary’ as a reflection of medical developments, namely treatment and recovery time. Early patients were more likely to be within hospitals, or bedridden, for a lengthy time. The traditional and more ‘homely’ gowns reflect aspects of domesticity and normality for the patient and medical standards. This in contrast with the later gowns as patients have speedier and less stints in hospitals as well as the constant turnovers of items such as gowns and bed sheets for patients.

The ability to place, touch and examine these three gowns together creates a better understanding of the history of medicine as well as the triggering of other ideas for future research and exhibitions.

I’ve sorted out the medical wardrobe – now its onto the medical hat collection!

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