Museum of London launches 2018 Disease X exhibition in online version as part of wider digital programme


Earlier this month the Museum of London shifted focus to become the Museum for London as part of a mission to bring first-class online content to visitors at home while our physical doors are closed. A primary strand of this digital programming is publishing objects and stories from some of the museum’s most popular exhibitions from both past and present. Today, the latest instalment of this programme launches with the temporary exhibition Disease X: London’s next epidemic?, originally open between November 2018 and March 2019, now available online here.

London, like the rest of the world has been affected in unprecedented ways by the current Covid-19 crisis, but it’s not the first time a virus has hit the capital. London has been affected by many epidemics and pandemics over the centuries including plague, cholera, smallpox, influenza and HIV/AIDS. The opening of Disease X in 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the second and most deadly wave of the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’. Using the Museum of London’s collections, new historical research and interviews with public health experts and epidemiologists the exhibition explored if the city might be at risk from an unknown ‘Disease X’ as the World Health Organisation called it.

The Disease X digital exhibition shares the stories, objects and words of the original display to demonstrate what the past can tell us about historical maladies, their impact on London and its people and the different methods used to fight back. Some of which include the mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria to mark the shock passing of her grandson Prince Albert Victor due to ‘Russian Flu’, a 17th century pomander used to waft away the foul smells thought to cause diseases like the plague and a poster advertising ‘Flu-Mal’, which dubiously claimed to combat both influenza and malaria.

Vyki Sparkes, Curator of Social & Working History at the Museum of London, said:

“We’re pleased we are able to share content from our exhibition Disease X: London’s next epidemic? in a new online format. When we opened the exhibition in 2018, almost two years before the current Covid-19 global health crisis, we did not attempt to predict what might cause a future disease outbreak in London, or when it might occur. Instead we aimed to link past, present and future together by using our historic collections, new historical research and interviews with top epidemiologists and public health experts to look at what impact any future outbreak may have on London.

Disease X explored how London faced many epidemics through history for which it had no cure, but also gave notes of hope, including the development of the first vaccine by Edward Jenner, the global eradication of smallpox in 1980 and the pioneering work in reducing HIV infections by 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic. It also provided an important reminder of the people behind the statistics through focusing on the personal stories of four Londoners who sadly died during the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic.

Since creating the original Disease X exhibition, Londoner’s lives have changed dramatically in a way we could not have anticipated and we hope that this digital exhibition gives some historical context to the situation facing London, and indeed the world, today.”

The Disease X digital exhibition is now live here and is part of a wider series of online programming and digital engagement which also includes the Museum for London Collecting Covid project, the Museum for London Docklands VE Day at 75 and The Clash: London Calling exhibition film commissioned and co-produced by BBC Arts and Art Fund as part of BBC Arts’ ‘Culture in Quarantine’ and #MuseumFromHome celebrations.

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