Collaboration, Cooperation and Conversations: The Inaugural Congress of the NNMHR (blog post by Natalie Mullen, Lancaster University)

Natalie Mullen is a PhD candidate based at Lancaster University. Her research is funded by the AHRC and examines patient agency in the nineteenth-century asylum.

The Inaugural Congress of the NNMHR (#NNMHR17) fell in the final weeks of the second year of my PhD. I had just finished working on a chapter focussed on how asylum space was used by patients to facilitate their exercise of agency, which I presented in the ‘Spaces of Madness’ panel. Coming from a history background, I was excited (and a little bit nervous!) to be able to participate in an event with such a diverse range of disciplines involved. I needn’t have been apprehensive however, as the atmosphere of the event was inclusive, constructive and supportive.

The ‘androchair’

The first day commenced with a fascinating Keynote address from Ericka Johnson and Kristin Zeiler (Linköping University, Sweden), whose paper challenged attendees to consider how objects in medical practise can be used to reinforce or question accepted practices. I was particularly struck by their discussion of the ‘androchair’, an invention intended to replicate the experience of the female gynaecological examination for male patients. This project was discussed to highlight the ways in which design can be used to unmask hidden gender norms in contemporary medical practice. The keynote was delivered through a video link-up, as poor weather conditions had disrupted the speakers’ travel arrangements, and although this delivery mechanism had not been the original intention of the organizers, it was an interesting and effective way of listening to the talk.

Indeed, innovative formats of delivering papers and of facilitating discussion were one of the highlights of the event. I particularly enjoyed the Marketplace, which allowed attendees to go between different ‘stalls’, each of which was occupied by a different project who presented their work in a variety of ways. From videos to posters, articles to artwork and even model robots, the media used to present work truly reflected the variety of research and methodologies being conducted within the field.

Setting up conversations for ‘Open Space’

The theme of alternative conference formats continued with the ‘Open Space’, which allowed attendees to come up with their own discussion topics and host conversations about them. Several individuals proposed topics and the rest of the group could choose which of the conversations to attend. I had been a little apprehensive at the start of the day, however I really enjoyed participating in conversations about the social Vs. the biological model of mental illness, and the use of animals in medicine.

I left the conference feeling inspired to go back to my PhD research, which I was able to return to with lots of new ideas and insights from the NNMHR Congress. I would like to thank the organizers who not only put together a programme filled with fascinating papers and discussions, but also gave much thought to including alternative formats for sessions. The innovative formats utilized enabled the event to truly represent the interdisciplinary nature of the Medical Humanities, and worked to promote collaborations, cooperation and conversations between scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds.

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