We attended an exhibit preview of Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York this month to explore and reflect upon the complex story of New York’s long battle against infectious disease—a fight involving government, urban planners, medical professionals, businesses, and activists. It reveals how our understanding of disease has changed us physically, socially, and culturally, and the surprising interplay between people and pathogens in an urban context.
The exhibition is organized by the Museum of the City of New York in collaboration with The New York Academy of Medicine and Wellcome. It is part of Wellcome’s international project Contagious Cities, which explores the interplay of people and pathogens in urban contexts. Drawing on the model of the Wellcome Collection’s “Reading Room,” Germ City features a hybrid gallery and library where visitors can view historical artifacts alongside contemporary artworks created for the exhibition, delve into the exhibition’s themes with a curated selection of books, and access a wide range of perspectives through digital interactives.
Contagious Cities is an international project developed by Wellcome, which supports local conversations around the global challenges of epidemic preparedness and marking the centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic, during which a third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million people died. Cities bring people and germs together. Through the stories it tells, Contagious Cities explores the outcomes of this cohabitation, and the relationship between microbes, migration and the metropolis. Combining different perspectives and expertise, partners in the project are co-producing artist residencies, exhibitions, interactive experiences, events and broadcasts. Together, they are investigating the physical, social, economic and cultural effects of infectious diseases
“Microbes don't necessarily first come to mind as intuitive territory for a cultural exhibition, but Germ City uses scientific models, historical objects, and contemporary artworks to make the very personal stories of New Yorkers who have been impacted by contagious disease over time come alive,” said Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The New York Academy of Medicine Library, and co-curator of Germ City. “Everyone can relate to what it's like to feel afraid or uncertain about illness, and/or comforted by caregivers, and we hope the show will provoke new conversations about responses to epidemic disease."
“The Academy is pleased to partner with our neighbor The Museum of the City of New York and with the Wellcome Trust on this important exhibition and program series,” said Judith A. Salerno, MD, MS, President of The New York Academy of Medicine. “This effort brings together our collective expertise on the history of health in New York and the impact that outbreaks of disease over time have had on New York City’s residents, infrastructure, and its many interlocking systems including housing, urban planning, water systems, migration, and public health policies.”
Rebecca Hayes Jacobs, Andrew W. Mellon, Post-Doctoral Cultural Fellow, with the Museum of the City of New York, added, “we were interested in bringing together historical artifacts, scientific models and contemporary art to try to address this topic of infectious disease, and organized it thematically about responses to disease. It shows artifacts and artwork about containment, investigation, care and stopping disease in the urban environment. And so we selected objects that might be visually interesting, thought provoking, and might surprise people and make them think and also bring up the social meaning of contagion. It is about the cultural side. It's a topic that is underappreciated, infectious disease might sound scary and intimidating, but anyone can learn more if they’re interested. We have a whole interactive space in the reading room, where people can learn personal stories, so hopefully it is a very accessible exhibition for just about anyone.”
After touring the exhibit and listening to opening remarks, we spoke with Seema Kumar, VP of Innovation, Global Health and Policy Communication, Johnson & Johnson, a sponsor of the exhibit.
ATHLEISURE MAG: Can you tell us about J&J's role and work in this field?
SEEMA KUMAR: J&J has a really superb global footprint in terms of multiple disease and therapeutic areas. Specific to this topic, in the global public health and infectious diseases and vaccines arena, we've got a long tradition in working in HIV, in TB, and many other diseases, like Zika and Ebola. We have a vaccines platform, where we are in the process of developing vaccines for Zika; we have actually 2M doses of an Ebola vaccine ready to deploy anytime there is a crisis - and those we developed and accelerated when there was a big Ebola crisis in 2015. We also have a vaccine for HIV, which is in clinical trials in South Africa. It's going to be tested in 2600 young girls and women in Sub-Saharan Africa, keeping fingers-crossed. In TB, we brought forward the first new mechanism of action in 40 years, there was a new compound and new break though and that works against multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB). So for those when all hope is gone and near deathbed when resistant to all of the existing treatments, this particular medicine helps. Especially in South Africa, we have a wonderful collaboration with the government through clinical trials and also access programs, where we made our compound available for use and the transformation that has taken place in those patients is just extraordinary in terms of changing the trajectory of the mortality rates of MDR-TB, so much so that the South African government made a courageous move to put this medicine as part of its drug regimen against MDR-TB. So we have a huge footprint, and then in HIV we have three products which treat HIV, but in addition to that we have a long-acting injectable, we're working together with GSK ViiV.
We've went from multiple pills that HIV patients have to take everyday to one pill, and now we're trying to make a long-acting injectable that can keep the virus in check for longer periods of time, and a vaccine to ultimately prevent it. We also do a lot of education and healthcare systems strengthening, all of that because it's not just the innovation, but strengthening the healthcare system.
AM: We love what you said about storytelling in the opening remarks. Can you please expand upon that?
SK: We have a campaign going on called Champions of Science, and want to make people understand that science and technology are really important for us in healthcare and many other things, like food, fuel and energy.. With the Africa storytelling challenge, there is a lot of science, technology and entrepreneurship going on there. Many people just think of disease and poverty, so we need to tell the positive stories. Winners will be featured on the platform and phase two will start.
Science can seem so complex to people, it sort of happens behind the lab and seems mysterious, so one of things that storytelling does is it really makes the complex simple, it makes it human, and it connects - facts and figures are great because they are needed for credibility and accuracy, but charts, graphs and numbers do not engage the heart. What engages the heart is really storytelling. There is a tradition of storytelling in all of our cultures, because that's how you've learned your value systems and information, when not even knowing you're being educated because you're listening to the story, but somehow it wires your brain with a lot of information. So storytelling is extraordinarily important in engaging people. Not even just the public, anybody can react to a story, so I think it is an important part of public engagement.
A bit before this preview, Jim Allison, Ph.D, Chair of the Department of Immunology, MD Anderson Center, won the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for groundbreaking work with Checkpoint Inhibitors, where the immune system is being used as a way to try attack cancer. Now immunotherapy is becoming a big breakthrough way to attack cancer. This gentleman has figured out, just like a gas pedal and a break, there is a break in the immune system and that break prevents the immune system from going after a cancer, and if you can release that break, the immune system can go and attack the cancer. We have heard stories about women with tumors all over their bodies, and the tumors can shrink after the first treatment and go away, and one woman featured has been living for over ten years. This is about turning on the switch of checkpoint inhibitors to go attack the cancer in cancer immunotherapy.
The Champions of Science – Africa Storytelling Challenge aims to unearth the inspirational stories of African innovators, and invites scientists doing work on the African continent to come forward and share their stories. "A tremendous amount of science is taking place across Africa, with researchers and innovators developing solutions that can have a significant impact on society," said Seema Kumar, Vice President, Innovation, Global Health and Science Policy Communication, Johnson & Johnson. "By amplifying the stories of innovation taking place across Africa and the impact it is having on families, communities and the world, we hope to build public engagement and support for science, and inspire the next generation to pursue scientific fields that will have the potential to drive Africa's socio-economic transformation."
We also spoke with Ken Arnold, Creative Director, and Simon Chaplin, Director of Culture and Society, at Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust is a biomedical research charity based in London, United Kingdom. It was established in 1936 with legacies from the pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Wellcome to fund research to improve human and animal health. The aim of the Trust is to "achieve extraordinary improvements in health by supporting the brightest minds", and in addition to funding biomedical research it supports the public understanding of science.
AM: Please tell us about Wellcome and the Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis exhibition.
KEN ARNOLD: Wellcome has been delighted to collaborate with colleagues at MCNY to co-produce the exhibition Germ City, and further to work in close collaboration with their next-door-neighbours the New York Academy of Medicine. The show explores how New York has shaped – and been shaped by – the fight against contagious diseases such as cholera, and TB. Through a range of intriguing historical objects, powerful contemporary art commissions and interactive features, the exhibition teases out the personal, cultural, political and medical dimensions of contagion in this truly global city.
SIMON CHAPLIN: The show tells stories about health and illness, immune systems and antibiotics, breakthroughs in treatments and vaccinations; and on a more granular individual scale, stories of the lives and struggles of ordinary New Yorkers. But it’s just as much about the structure of urban life: housing, water systems, sanitation, and individual and collective rights. Inevitably, it also touches on issues of social injustice and conflict.
AM: What other exhibitions and projects are part of Wellcome's Contagious Cities international project?
KA: Germ City is the first exhibition in Wellcome’s ambitiously broad international Contagious Cities initiative. Timed to coincide with the centenary of the 1918/19 influenza pandemic, Contagious Cities is a cultural project that spans Geneva, Hong
Kong and New York. Each has its own fascinating, often tragic, but also sometimes hopeful set of disease stories to share. With the World Health Organisation headquartered there, Geneva is arguably the city in the world where most thought is given to contagion and epidemics. Contagious cities commissioned WHO’s first artists in residence. While Hong Kong is perhaps the world’s most connected city, with a vibrant history as a hub of international travel, but also of contagious diseases. A major part of the project there will be an art-led exhibition at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong’s brand-new centre for heritage and arts.
AM: What are some of the upcoming featured artist residencies, broadcasts, events and interactive storytelling experiences?
KA: Across New York ‘Contagious Cities’ features exhibitions, artist residencies, broadcasts, events and interactive storytelling experiences. The Tenement Museum will host a series of special tours of its historic Lower East Side buildings focused on former residents’ tales of disease, medicine, immigration and reform; while WNYC have drawn on their archives and newsroom to offer a series of narratives chronicling the relationship between cities and contagious disease. Other activities are based at the New York Public Library, CUNY’s Graduate School and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
AM: What some key takeaways you hope attendees have when exploring Germ City: Microbes and Metropolis and the Contagious Cities series?
SC: We want to raise awareness of how much germs are a part of all our lives: the reason we wash our hands and cover our mouths when we sneeze. They are a major, if microscopic, feature of our urban environment; and in causing diseases they have brought tragedy, fear, suspicion and destruction to urban environments. But in dealing with them, cities have also witnessed acts of compassion and imagination and globally significant learned lessons. We want people to find out and think about that balance and tension; to comprehend some of the fascinating consequences of those histories, as well as understand and be part of collective attempts to avoid potential disease outbreaks in the future.
AM: What are some highlights of historical significance in NYC's battle with infectious disease?
KA: INFLUENZA - The most deadly flu episode came to New York 100 years ago, in the aftermath of World War I. The global pandemic of 1918–19 killed an estimated 50–100 million people (more than the entire combat death toll of the war). Although over 30,000 New York City residents died, the city’s death rate was actually much lower than other large US cities, in part due to decades of work to improve sanitation and housing conditions by the New York City Department of Health.
“TYPHOID MARY” - Perhaps history’s most famous case of forced isolation of a disease carrier was that of Mary Mallon (1869–1938), who spent the last 23 years of her life held against her will on North Brother Island in the East River. She had spread typhoid to the many families and other clients for whom she worked as a cook, but never fell ill herself. She was outraged at her confinement and refused to believe that she was infected.
TB CARE - Tuberculosis played a particularly pernicious and tenacious role in the urban landscape. Tenements were ideal environments for the disease, which thrived in unventilated rooms and among those whose immune systems were compromised by malnourishment and poor hygiene. TB killed more New Yorkers in the 19th century than any other contagion.
AM: How powerful is storytelling at exhibitions and events to advocate and promote change?
SC: It can be an extraordinarily potent aspect of exhibitions and events, especially in the way it brings personal lived experiences into the context of topics that may otherwise seem challenging, complicated and unrelatably large. Narratives can remind us that shared human instincts reach across time allowing us to empathise with historical figures; but also to show how rich and varied human experience is - that our perspectives are not necessarily shared by others. Less focused on the idea of promoting specific changes, storytelling does provide a powerful platform to make people think openly and differently about big topics such as epidemic preparedness and why they should care about it.
AM: What are some insights into your creative process for designing exhibits, as well as across global show series?
KA: ‘Contagious Cities’ is a profoundly transdisciplinary project: it brings together insights and perspectives from science and culture; from historical investigation and personal reflection. It’s a vigorous attempt to make bold links between medicine, life and art.
SC: It is also a project founded on the principles of co-production. It wouldn’t happen without Wellcome’s core role; but is equally inconceivable without our inspiring partners in each of these cities. We work like this because we believe more exciting public shows can be the result, and because we believe we can all learn much by working collaboratively.
Contagious Cities also aims to make the most of Wellcome’s international reach; it is based on our commitment to the value of supporting locally grounded conversations around global challenges, in this case epidemic preparedness.
AM: Please tell us more about Wellcome and some of its global health initiatives. How does it advance ideas, seize opportunity and drive reform?
SC: Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. And we support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations, and spark debate. Our funding helps 14,000 curious people in more than 70 countries to explore ideas in science, population health, medical innovation, the humanities and social sciences and public engagement.
We are a well-resourced and relatively independent organization that, we believe, that can make tangible differences. We aim to stimulate research excellence and develop global collaborations to drive change. If we're successful, the research we fund will provide strong evidence for action, which will lead policymakers, businesses and the public to make more informed decisions on things that affect the environment and health.
KA: Wellcome is also helping change the way we think about medicine and its place in society and culture. Through our free museum and library (Wellcome Collection), we seek to challenge how we all think and feel about health. We put on exhibitions, curate collections, produce live and digital programming, broadcasts and publications to create opportunities for people to think deeply about the connections between science, medicine, life and art. Projects like Contagious Cities take our excitement around this approach to the culture of medicine to new audiences in parts of the world important to us, but where we are less well known.
We also caught up with the blood artist and activist behind Blood Mirror, Jordan Eagles. In 2014, artist Jordan Eagles enlisted a group of 9 extraordinary gay, polysexual, and/or transgender men, each with a unique life story, to donate their blood to the sculpture Blood Mirror in protest of the FDA’s ban. The blood in this sculpture has been encased in resin and is fully preserved, ensuring that the organic material will not change over time. In 2016, 50 PrEP advocates gathered in protest to donate their blood to Blood Mirror. Each individual donated a tube of blood – 50 tubes equals a full pint, the amount in a standard blood donation — which was collected into the “community pint”. This blood was preserved inside Blood Mirror, which protests FDA’s current 1-year deferral policy to stigmatize gay and bisexual men without accounting for PrEP, condoms, and other safe-sex practices that can greatly reduce the risk of HIV infection. Viewers can enter Blood Mirror and see themselves reflected through the blood of these 59 preserved donations. A totem of science and equality, Blood Mirror is an archive of the donors’ blood that confronts the 33-year history of the FDA’s ban and current discriminatory policy.
AM: What is this art piece called and what is the message behind the work?
JORDAN EAGLES: The piece is called Blood Mirror. It is made out of the blood donations of 59 gay, bisexual and transgender men to discuss and peacefully protest the FDA’s discriminatory policy on blood donations for gay and bisexual men. Up until recently (2015), there was a lifetime ban from donating if a man had sex with another man once, he was deferred for life. This was put into effect in 1983 during the AIDS epidemic. In 2015, the FDA changed the policy to allow gay and bisexual men to donate blood, but only if they were celibate for a full year, which is as I see it ridiculous, especially when there are no requirements for any other individuals to be celibate.
So this piece was created over a two year period, there are two iterations. The first phase of the project happened before, in 2014 and 2015, and involved the blood donations of 9 very particular men, all with very unique stories and life perspectives about hypocrisy and policy.
AM: Who are some of the individuals who donated blood for the project? Why were they selected, what are their stories?
JE: These are some of those blood donors. Oliver Anene is a LBGT activist from Nigeria who is here in the US on political asylum. It is ironic and sad how his participation of the project has a different meaning now in 2018, even though we’re thinking of the FDA’s policy on blood donations, blood is something that is in all human beings – a life force for everyone in the world. So it was important to ask someone very far away to be represented. Blue Bayer is a bisexual father of two, so it really humanizes his inability to donate blood for his own children should they need it. Howard Grossman, M.D., is the medical supervisor on the project, and well as a blood donor, he is a classic AIDS specialist, on the front lines of HIV/AIDS for 30 somewhat years. Kelsey Louis is the CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., is the co-founder of GMHC and the first writer to write about AIDS back in the 80’s. The Reverend John Moody, he is an openly gay priest and part of Trinity Wall St, coincidentally where the first act of protest was. Reverend Moody was important so someone could speak about the spirituality of the blood and it’s so often connected to a lot of religious iconography, rituals and the deep humanity of it. Loren Rice is a transgender man, who at the time he donated blood he was married to another transgender man. What’s interesting about this that the transgender men can be self-identifiable, but that means if you check the box
you’re with another transgender man, meaning that checking the box confers you slept with another man, and in so, then disqualified from giving blood. What about monogamously married people, there is CPT Anthony Woods who is married, but is also in the project because he led two terms in Iraq, and he could shed his blood on the battlefield and cannot donate blood to save lives. It is so crazy especially when donation is supposed to be this patriotic, symbolic duty. Ty Spicha is an identical twin, he is gay and is brother is straight. They have the same DNA but only one can donate because one is gay and one isn’t. So all of that was done in 2014-2015.
AM: Where else has the Blood Mirror been featured?
JE: The sculpture premiered in Washington DC at the American History Museum and travelled from there to here in New York, at Trinity Wall St. Then from there, it came back to my studio and we did another iteration of the project, where we created a blood drive for 50 men donating a tube of blood, on PrEP to make a joint human pint, and that was added to the piece and preserved. The viewer essentially becomes another participant in the piece because of the nature of being a mirror – you can see yourself through the blood of men whose blood would have been used for life-saving purposes.
AM: What is it like to tell stories with blood, tell us more about yourself?
JE: I’m an artist and have been working in blood for almost 20 years. Most of my work was done from blood procured from a slaughterhouse and addresses different themes, more philosophically driven, spirituality, regeneration, lifecycle, and the body. This is the first human blood project and happy it is here in the Museum of the City of New York. 55 of the donors are New Yorkers, so I really feel it is coming back home. The piece was recently shown as of last year through middle of this year at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, so different venues can change the ways it can be discussed. Here it is based on the theme of containment, it is really a contemporary metaphor of even today in 2018, LGBT individuals are essentially quarantined through their blood and not being able to participate the way everyone else can. So hopefully after eight months of it being here, more people will know about the issue and people will wake up and change the policy.