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Keeper of the flame: Museum of Osteopathic Medicine preserves ATSU’s heritage

Dr. A.T. Still bust

Around the world, museums capture the attention of millions of people each year. From aquariums and zoos to science centers and historical sites, museums have the unique ability to transport visitors to another time and place and immerse them in an educational experience. These cultural hotspots provide insight on specialized topics while showcasing tangible and intangible elements of humanity and the natural world.

Museums are traditionally known for acquiring, conserving, studying, and exhibiting pieces of history and the environment. However, these institutions have become much more by building bridges to the past and bringing history to life. Today’s museums incorporate advanced technology with online galleries and virtual tours in addition to offering educational programming and community outreach.

The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine

Illuminating the past sheds light on the future, and the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine is doing its part to enlighten future generations. Based in Kirksville, Missouri, on the grounds of the founding institution of osteopathic medicine, the museum welcomes visitors near and far who are interested in the history of A.T. Still, DO, and the tenets of osteopathy.

The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine maintains a vast collection of objects, images, documents, books, and more. More than 80,000 artifacts are available for public viewing online, with many of those items found in Heritage Hall, the main gallery, and hallway displays. The collection continues outdoors in the historic Medicinal Plant Garden and at the Still family gravesite. These exhibits are designed for all interest levels, ranging in topics from the early frontier experience and life of Dr. Still to the formative years of the osteopathic profession, first school, and those responsible for the profession’s subsequent growth.

Dr. A.T. Still leans on one of his many walking sticks, circa 1914. Museum of Osteopathic Medicine,
Kirksville, Missouri [2007.63.36.13]

Along with viewing items in the collection, members of the public have an opportunity to conduct research and access scholarly resources. The museum’s International Center for Osteopathic History, which specializes in osteopathic historical research up to 1979, offers a number of books, journals, photographs, documents, and other materials for research purposes.

In terms of education and outreach, Jason Haxton, MA, director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, works with schools and professional osteopathic organizations at state, national, and international levels. He spends much of his time on osteopathic history education for ATSU students, faculty, and staff, and even provides online lectures and podcasts.

Haxton, who has devoted his career to studying American antiques and ancient artifacts, oversees all levels of the museum, from collections management and research to exhibit development and installation.He and his staff, including Heather Rudy, MA, the museum’s assistant director, are continually finding new information and new artifacts to help tell osteopathy’s rich history.

As the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine embraces all facets of the osteopathic profession, it more broadly incorporates the history of whole person healthcare, which is tied to all ATSU programs, including dentistry, nursing, public health, physician assistant studies, occupational therapy, physical therapy, athletic training, kinesiology, audiology, and more. Through these curricula and ATSU events, like commencement and Founder’s Day, the museum has become inextricably woven into the University fabric and effectively anchored in the Kirksville community.

“We can directly trace the origins of osteopathic medicine back to this community,” Haxton said. “It is surprising how many ways our history is connected to all aspects of the University.”

Journey to accreditation

With ATSU’s vision of preeminence, all areas of the University strive for excellence at the highest levels, and the museum is no exception. Museum staff has been working toward accreditation for many years with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). A long-time leader in developing best practices and advocating for museums, AAM is the accrediting body for many high-profile museums, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Smithsonian.

In 2000, Haxton and his staff began the slow and arduous task of processing and cataloging the more than 100,000 items in the museum’s collection. In addition, the museum purchased PastPerfect Museum Software and began putting the collection online. This forward-thinking move gave the museum a virtual presence, which was almost unheard of at the time.

Christopher Ferguson (left) and Jason Haxton (right) discuss management of the museum’s collection.

By 2011, after several years of working on the collection and obtaining needed resources, the museum had come a long way. The staff held a Collections Assessment for Preservation visit and received a positive review. The report indicated the museum was doing outstanding work, as it was a model for other museums and on a solid path to meet AAM’s accreditation expectations.

A few years later, the museum began the AAM accreditation process. The museum’s policies, professionalism, and vision for the future received positive feedback, and the staff had successfully processed about 43,000 items, or about 43% of the collection. However, AAM requires 80% of a collection to be accessible before granting accreditation. Knowing they were on the right track, the staff continued processing and cataloging items and hired grant-funded support staff to supplement their efforts.

By October 2020, approximately 85,000 items, or 85% of the collection, were now processed, cataloged, and available online – well above the required amount. With the support of Shaun Sommerer, PhD, ATSU’s vice president for university advancement, the museum restarted its AAM accreditation journey.

Heather Rudy and Jason Haxton review items from the museum’s collection.

Museum staff resubmitted necessary documentation, including a strategic plan, emergency plan, code of ethics, and collections management policy. AAM then provided guidance and multiple reviews before approving the core documents in March 2021. This approval allowed the museum to officially apply for AAM accreditation.

One additional requirement for formal application is support from a director of an active accredited museum. As an active museum in the state, the University of Missouri Arts and Archaeology Museum supported the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine’s application without hesitation, having seen the museum firsthand during professional museum training partnerships.

In late March 2021, AAM accepted the museum’s application and provided a 60-page self-review for the museum to complete within three months. Having recently completed this self-review, the museum now awaits additional information requests from AAM. Once approved, a professional museum visit and review will be held on-site, the final step in AAM’s accreditation process.

The museum anticipates decades of hard work will be rewarded with AAM accreditation, the highest standard achievable in the museum profession. Only about 1,000 of the nation’s estimated 35,000 museums have earned this level of distinction. As museum staff continues working toward processing and cataloging the entire collection, the history of Dr. Still and osteopathic medicine has never been more accessible, even during a pandemic.

“The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine is the largest collection of osteopathy in the world,” Haxton said. “It contains the complete history.”

Back to the beginning

The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine’s artifacts tell a unique story, but so does the museum itself. While it has come a long way through its accreditation process, it has come an even longer way from its establishment nearly a century ago.

These two curio cabinets in Memorial Hall held the museum’s original collection, which mostly included Dr. A.T. Still’s personal belongings. This image was featured in the 1936 Journal of Osteopathy.
Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, Kirksville, Missouri

Dr. Still’s daughter, Blanche Laughlin, started the original museum collection, which consisted mostly of the old doctor’s belongings, including his boots and walking sticks. The collection was housed in two curio cabinets in ATSU’s Memorial Hall, just down the street from the current museum location.

“Much like Dr. Still’s humble beginnings, the collection had humble origins too,” Haxton said.

Before the collection began to take shape in 1934, some osteopathic artifacts had been donated to the Smithsonian in the early 1920s. Although it is still unknown what exactly was donated, historical records indicate those items were part of an osteopathic medicine exhibit that ran at the Smithsonian from the 1920s-60s.

Dr. A.T. Still’s daughter, Blanche Laughlin, started the original museum collection. Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, Kirksville, Missouri [2000.01.08]

Thankfully, thousands of other artifacts, dating from the early 1800s to present, have been donated to the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine’s collection over the years. These items from Dr. Still’s relatives, osteopathic physicians, and museum supporters reflect the osteopathic profession’s beginnings and ongoing history, with the core of the collection remaining centered on Dr. Still’s professional and private life.

“After 20 years, there are still surprises in artifacts that surface or a new facet of a significant osteopathic leader or story,” Haxton said. “We are constantly gaining more information and a better understanding of our growth and success in worldwide healthcare.”

The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine has always been located on University property, but it was a private entity until the Board of Trustees voted to incorporate the museum in April 1996, under the administration of former President Fred C. Tinning, PhD. Since that time, each University president, including current President Craig M. Phelps, DO, ’84, has supported and encouraged elevating the museum to a higher standard.

“President Phelps has strongly supported the museum in achieving AAM accreditation,” Haxton said. “He believes if the University and its programs strive for the highest levels of accreditation, so should the museum.”

The premier institution of osteopathic history

When the museum was granted a charter by the American Osteopathic Association, it became known as the museum of the osteopathic profession. With recognition of AAM accreditation, it will also position itself as one of the country’s most prominent museums.

“The osteopathic profession is rooted in rich culture and history, which serves to define the distinctiveness of our profession,” said Kevin Klauer, DO, EJD, CEO of the American Osteopathic Association. “Some consider the osteopathic profession a ‘branch of medicine.’ Well, I disagree. We are our own distinct tree. The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine is critical and instrumental to preserving our history and illustrating our professional identity.”

Norman Gevitz, PhD, ATSU’s senior vice president-academic affairs and a medical historian, lauds the museum’s efforts, particularly in educating the public.

“The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine is special,” Dr. Gevitz said. “It is the only one of its kind dedicated to history of osteopathic medicine and osteopathic medicine education.”

The museum has proven to be a good steward of its collection, and the staff has worked tirelessly to share osteopathic history with patrons across the globe, all while preserving and cataloging artifacts, preparing them for exhibit, and making them available online.

This two-room building was the first school building of the American School of Osteopathy. It was used from 1892-1894 and was moved to its current location in Heritage Hall in 1994.

Their work is often tedious. Rudy notes her days may consist of cataloging artifacts, which includes assigning numbers to an artifact, photographing the object, placing information into the online database, and creating archival-quality storage for the artifact. Sometimes she builds boxes and artifact travel cases, sews artifact bags, or finds storage solutions for difficult artifacts. Other days, she assists the exhibit manager with installing or removing artifacts from display.

Most importantly, the staff’s daily tasks always center on proper care of the collection, including jumping into action for emergency salvage of artifacts. In one instance, a donor brought in a large collection of framed items that had gotten wet. Rudy’s first instinct was to remove the frame and dry the artifacts, ensuring minimal damage.

“It is always fun finding out new information and uncovering previously unidentified artifacts,” Rudy said. “These little nuggets help make our job really interesting and make you feel like you are saving and telling an important story in history.”

The Still Family Cabin was built in Lee County, Virginia, in the 1820s and was moved to its current location in Heritage Hall in 1994.

The history of medicine as a whole is scattered throughout the world and dates back to Hippocrates. Osteopathic medicine, on the other hand, has more finite roots, and they all lead home to one altruistic person – Dr. Still – and his community.

“When it comes to osteopathic medicine, all paths trace back to Kirksville, the same campus that stood as the American School of Osteopathy,” Haxton said. “That uniquely positions the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine as the premier institution of osteopathic history.”

A key to securing the future and unlocking the past

When museums obtain AAM accreditation, they gain not only the prestigious title of excellence but also access to exclusive resources. For the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, this will mean access to grant funding, which could provide the museum with financial stability for years to come.

Another valuable benefit is fellowship. Museums holding AAM accreditation are able to network with other high-level museums. The Museum of Osteopathic Medicine’s staff members will be able to keep abreast of important topics and current trends in the field and help the museum continue to be a leading example.

One additional key element of accreditation is the ability to borrow objects from fellow AAM-accredited museums. Earning accreditation shows accountability, as these museums have demonstrated credibility and integrity with respect to their collections and their communities.

Once the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine receives AAM recognition, it will have met standards to show it can be trusted with artifacts from other museums, thereby opening the door to borrowing items relevant to its collection. The first items on the museum’s wish list are undoubtedly those mysterious items donated to the Smithsonian in the 1920s. If those artifacts end up on loan at the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, they would answer the decades-old question of what was donated and perhaps add more detail to the ever-developing story of osteopathy.

“The possibility of getting those artifacts back as a permanent loan to the museum is so exciting,” Haxton said. “The more knowledge we have, the better we can share our history with the world.”

Haxton, along with every member of his staff, is passionate about the work they do. Their enthusiasm is visible through the details of their work, which are on display within the museum and beyond in the osteopathic community. AAM accreditation will definitely be a high point, but it will certainly not be a stopping point. The museum will stay true to its purpose and will continue its education and outreach about the history of Dr. Still and whole person healthcare.

“The museum is a jewel in the crown,” Dr. Gevitz said. “It marks us off as the first osteopathic medical school and keeper of the flame.”

Ways to support the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine

Become a member

Members help the museum continue to grow as a unique source of osteopathic history. Anyone interested in membership may choose from various levels of support. Visit atsu.edu/museum to learn more.

Provide a financial gift

Financial donations help the museum accomplish its mission of preserving and promoting the history and tenets of osteopathy through collections and research to a global audience.

Donate items to the collection

The museum collects historic materials to support its education, exhibition, and scholarship functions. If you are considering donating items, please call Christopher Ferguson at 660.626.2359.

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