QMUL People – Carla Valentine
Being the technical curator of an incredible museum is a full time job in itself, particularly with opening to the public, organising student/teaching events and social media on top of specimen organisation and conservation. I try to record as many YouTube videos about our specimens as I can but along with my MA, Past Mortems book promotion and new sidestep into a major teaching project there’s certainly not enough hours in the day! This recent internal piece in ‘QM People’ (which can’t otherwise be accessed by the public) explains a bit more about the project and why we’ll soon be advertising for a part-time museum assistant.
Carla Valentine is Technical Curator at Barts Pathology Museum. She’s had a varied and exciting career in the field of pathology, and has recently published her book ‘Past Mortems’ which details her experiences working as an Anatomical Pathology Technologist. We caught up with her to find out a bit more, and what’s in store for the museum in the coming months.
You’re Technical Curator at Barts Pathology Museum – could you tell us a bit more about what your role involves?
My main role is to conserve and repair the 5,000 anatomical specimens in the collection, which is owned by the School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD). This is because they fell into disrepair over the course of 20 years or so, when medical teaching changed and the specimens – or ‘pots’ as they’re known – were no longer used. I also improve the fabric of this Grade II Listed building by applying for grants and contacting maintenance etc. Because of the improvements in the infrastructure, I’ve been able to open up the museum to the public as well as medical students, so I also organise public engagement events. These events are set around a specific calendar that takes into account SMD’s usage of the museum during the academic year. The only way for the public to see the museum is to attend one of these events, the proceeds of which go to the upkeep of the museum.
How did you get into this line of work and what first inspired you to enter into this field?
I’ve always wanted to work in the field of pathology, since I was a child. I was very interested in anatomy and biology and I learned very early on I had a strong stomach and a fascination for what the deceased can ‘tell’ us about their deaths. My studies at university (Forensic and Biomolecular Science), my gap year as an embalmer’s assistant and my subsequent volunteering at a local city mortuary were all steps I took very early on to ensure I’d work in the field I chose. I qualified as a full time Anatomical Pathology Technologist (APT – this is an autopsy assistant) as soon as I left university and carried on in that field, becoming a Senior APT. After eight years, I chose to take a side step into a different area of pathology: that of the pathology of the past and the history of medicine. The job in this pathology museum, which contains specimens from as early as 1750, is ideal for me.
Are you working on any exciting new projects with Barts Pathology museum at the moment?
That would be telling! At the moment I am putting together our autumn/winter seminar season and working on a few structural improvements but the main aim this year is for my line manager, Steve Moore, and myself to begin the route of obtaining museum accreditation. This would be very prestigious for us at QMUL. We are also working on a plan with the Learning Development team at the Mile End campus that will see the museum, and the specimens therein, be part of the QMUL Model project. We are still working out the details, but essentially it is envisaged to be a cross-disciplinary research project that explores not only the pathology of those that lived in this area during the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also the culture, diversity, treatments and a range of medical–humanities related topics that will tell a story of East End life during this historically rich period in Queen Mary’s history.
You’ve just released your book titled Past Mortems – could you give us an insight into what we can expect to find inside?
Past Mortems is mainly about the years I worked as an APT and the different cases I encountered and people I met. I’ve tried to be very open and honest in the book, discussing some of the things I love about working as an APT and some of the things which affected me negatively. Some moments are quite sad and some – such as when I discuss decomposition – are quite graphic! But overall it’s blackly humorous and full of facts as well as my thoughts on how the work I previously did relates to what I do now. I’ve been called a brilliant “dead”ucator by people reading the book so expect to get a good “dead”ucation!
You can purchase a copy of Carla’s book Past Mortems here.
What would you say is the most memorable moment of your career?
There’s a lot I could say but it has to be meeting one of my heroes, Henry Rollins (musician, author, actor, traveller and all round icon.) He’s been one of my heroes since I was a child so I was extremely honoured to have him visit me at the pathology museum. He loves new experiences and learning new things so his interest in my work and this beautiful building was incredibly gratifying.
What do you like to get up to in your spare time?
I’m studying for an MA at Birkbeck at the moment (in Exhibiting the Body) so when it comes to free time I don’t have a lot of it! I do ensure I go to the gym four to five times a week though as I find exercise helps top clear my head. I lift weights through the week, take anti-gravity yoga classes and at the weekend run round the local graveyard with my ‘Zombies, Run!’ app. I also love to read and I watch Midsomer Murders religiously: it’s my guilty pleasure!