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Up close and personal at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum

Exterior of the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia
(Source: David J. Sencer CDC Museum/Mike Jensen photo)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) located in Atlanta, Georgia, wasn’t exactly what I considered a must-see destination when I was brought on a tour two years ago. After all, I hated science class and the thought of touring a place filled with test tubes wasn’t my idea of fun. I was wrong. The tour wasn’t through the center’s research labs. Instead, it was a visit to the David J. Sencer CDC Museum, an associate of the Smithsonian that was established in 1996.

The CDC museum presents a variety of material and collections that blends science and history with a healthy shot of popular culture. It’s a successful mix that creates an engaging experience even non-science geeks like me can dig, and it’s why the museum annually attracts over 90,000 guests.

The standout exhibit two years ago documented the centennial of the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. As CDC Museum Curator Louise Shaw recently explained, it was a teaser exhibit for a larger exhibition that had been planned for 2020 entitled “Influenza: Complex Virus, Complex History.” Ironically, the opening of that exhibit collided with the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing a postponement until the latest pandemic becomes history.

“Major exhibits take a couple of years to develop,” Shaw said. “We had planned for “Influenza: Complex Virus, Complex History” to open this past May. Little did we know during the planning that a pandemic would create a delay. However, we have installed the exhibition; so as soon as we get the green light to reopen, we’ll be ready to greet the public.”

Entrance to the “Influenza: Complex Virus, Complex History” exhibit. (Source: David J. Sencer CDC Museum/Mike Jensen photo)

With COVID-19 proving to be among the most deadly pandemics experienced in modern history, I asked Shaw if the Influenza exhibit has been revamped.

“We actually did draw some parallels and called out COVID-19 in some very specific places. But Heather Rodriguez, who curated the exhibit, was clear that we didn’t want to turn this into a COVID-19 exhibit,” Shaw said. “We did bring in parallels in popular culture in regard to how influenza captured the imagination and responses of artists and filmmakers. Needless to say, there will be a lot of parallels we’ll be able to draw in (any) major exhibit about COVID-19 we develop after the current pandemic resolves itself.”

In the wake of the devastation left by the 1918 pandemic, many who were affected were reluctant to share their feelings or experiences. The exhibition explores how some used culture to reckon with the massive loss of life. Included in this area of the exhibit is a mural based on a 1918 watercolor by John Singer Sargent, an American expatriate artist who was known for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury, a stark contrast to the losses of the pandemic.

Mural based on the 1918 watercolor by John Singer Sargent, a highlight of “Influenza: Complex Virus, Complex History.” (Source: David J. Sencer CDC Museum/Mike Jensen photo)

Throughout Influenza: Complex Virus/Complex History, scientific advances are interwoven with recollections of influenza’s social and cultural impact to illustrate a complex global story in which each of us plays a unique, ever-changing role. Highlights of the exhibition include a three-foot wide influenza model and a timeline of epidemics, pandemics and scientific advancements, set alongside historic world events. When asked if she had a personal favorite among the advancements, Shaw noted a 1918 jar of Vicks VapoRub.

“Vicks came out of North Carolina in the late 1890s. During the 1918 pandemic, the medical community didn’t realize it was a virus and thought it was a bacterial infection. They were looking at treatments that addressed the symptoms and found Vicks made people feel better. Vicks VapoRub really took that and ran with it,” Shaw said. “It became popular. It’s still used today as a remedy for colds and other maladies.”

“Influenza: Complex Virus, Complex History” is just one of the many exhibits on display that visitors can explore once the CDC museum is able to reopen. Climate & Health, another timely temporary exhibit, looks at the story of climate change and health through photographs and dramatic maps that tell representative stories about the intersections of climate, health and the effects of ongoing heatwaves, California forest fires and Midwest flooding.

Counted among the CDC’s permanent exhibits is the popular Global Symphony. A multiscreen, multi-media installation featuring 150 media vignettes and four videos about the CDC’s role in preventing and controlling polio, Legionaries’ disease, obesity and Ebola. Another must-see exhibit, which Shaw recommends, is the gallery dedicated to the history of HIV and the AIDS epidemic.

When the David J. Sencer CDC Museum reopens to the public visitors will be able to view all the exhibits and on-site programs free. No need for advance reservations for self-guided tours for groups of 10 guests or less.

Until the CDC is able to reopen its museum, Shaw and the entire CDC staff have a request: Follow the CDC guidelines during this time of COVID-19 and stay safe and well.

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