CDC museum shows the beauty of science

Though the timing is curious, the exhibit itself shows that science can be both rigorous and beautiful.

While sexually transmitted diseases are frightening, the bold illustrations in the posters and pamphlets created to fight this scourge qualify as works of art.

In that sense, the traveling exhibit, called “VD: Values, Rights, Public Health,” is matched in tone to the Global Health Odyssey Museum itself. Hidden away on the CDC campus near Emory University, this 19,000-square-foot facility addresses science and public health in a way that is historically accurate and visually rich.

The museum opened in 1996, in time for the Atlanta Olympics, and in 2005 moved into the striking, glass-fronted Tom Harkin Global Communications Center, its facade looking like a giant, slightly askew jalousie window.

Permanent exhibits tell the story of Atlanta’s unique role in world epidemiology, while temporary shows highlight specific issues.

Documenting the struggle against sexually transmitted diseases from the turn of the 20th century to the present, the new exhibit shows how scientists and policy-makers dealt with public attitudes while trying to solve what was one of the leading threats to American health.

From 1900-1940, one in 10 Americans was infected with syphilis. The disease killed 100,000 people a year and was the leading cause of childhood blindness. But most media preferred euphemisms such as “social hygiene” over straightforward discussion of infection. Dr. Thomas Parran, venereal disease specialist with the U.S. Public Health Service, was famously precluded from using the words “syphilis” and “gonorrhea” on a CBS radio interview in 1934.

Visitors to the exhibit will note that much of the same conflict between public health and moral agendas crops up again in the AIDs era. The exhibit and the museum demonstrate how epidemiology pursues its goal of disease prevention on two seemingly separate tracks, utilizing the electron microscope and the subway poster.

The complex story includes an account of the notorious Tuskegee Experiment, in which patients were knowingly allowed to suffer from advanced symptoms of venereal disease, though the cure was known.

Curator Louise E. Shaw has a particular appreciation for the graphic arts that accompanied public health campaigns. For 15 years, she was the executive director of the Nexus Contemporary Arts Center, which included the Nexus Press, where she learned a great deal about the two-color process.

She can discuss the difference between the more brilliant silkscreen images and the subtler lithographs. But she acknowledges that today’s public health message is more likely to be a subtle television ad than the stark black and white image on the 1943 pamphlet entitled “Sailor Beware,” featuring a serviceman and a high-heeled strumpet.

Unlike that message, current campaigns don’t turn females into threatening figures, said Shaw.

“There’s a lot more sensitivity in how victims are portrayed and who are the victims,” she said. The trade-off? “We’ve lost the really powerful graphic.”

Free and open to the public, the museum is one of Atlanta’s little-known treasures. Some visitors may be deterred by the fact that a vehicle search is required before being allowed past the guard’s station, but director Judy M. Gantt said others are fascinated by the security precautions. “It’s all part of the CDC experience.”

Inside, one must show a government-issued photo ID before receiving a pass to wander freely around the building.

A multiscreen installation in the atrium offers three-minute accounts of a few of the CDC’s major initiatives, from attacking polio in India to isolating the baffling cause of Legionnaire’s disease back in 1977.

Visitors then walk down to the permanent exhibits on the basement level, all of which contribute to the story of the CDC with excellent narratives and the assistance of iconic artifacts.

A display describing the effort to decode the Legionnaire’s disease mystery, for example, includes a bottle of “chiller water” from the actual air conditioner at the Philadelphia hotel that was the source of the bacterium that caused the fatal illness.

Some of the artifacts are modest, such as a jar of volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens. Some are gargantuan, including an iron lung used by its Louisiana owner for 47 years and a transmission electron miscroscope, used by the CDC for research into AIDS.

The museum receives 50,000 visitors a year, said Gantt. The traveling exhibit, “VD: Values, Rights, Public Health,” opens Feb. 16 and runs through May 28.

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