Palmerston North's David Warnock Medical Museum

A visit before the closure of the David Warnock Medical Museum at Palmerston North Hospital.

Palmerston North's David Warnock Medical Museum
Close up of a pill-rolling machine from the 1920s. From the David Warnock Medical Museum collection.

Having read a recent article on the closure of the David Warnock Medical Museum at Palmerston North Hospital, I was incredibly grateful that my schedule allowed me to make it down the country in time to see it before it closed.

On Anzac Day, the museum had an open day in the afternoon and was staffed by a number of wonderful volunteers. I can’t say I expected the museum to be as busy as it was. Despite how intrinsic health and medicine are to who we are as people, displays on the subjects are often not well visited. I was directed towards Micki and Marilyn – two former dental nurses – who told me about the wonderful work that the volunteers and committee members have put into the museum.

The museum was started by Dr David Warnock, the museum’s first curator, and it opened its doors in 1980. Over the decades the museum has collected approximately 10,000 objects of medical history related to Palmerston North Hospital, the Manawatū region, and New Zealand. The purpose of the museum is to acquire, conserve, research and display the history of health and medicine for “the purposes of study, education and enjoyment…”.

Unfortunately for the communities of Palmerston North, at the time of writing they have less than a month to visit the museum as it currently stands. The closure is coming soon and the museum’s collections have an uncertain future. But in the meantime, there are displays across the spectrum of medicine.
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A history of dental nurse uniforms. From the David Warnock Medical Museum collection.

As someone with an interest in textiles, I was drawn to the display on local school dental service uniforms. From the 1920s starched white uniform complete with cardigan, stockings, and a veil through to coloured smocks of the 1990s, the uniform for dental nurses has undergone radical change. But the early dental nurse uniforms were not the oldest objects in the collection.

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A ship medicine chest from the 1860s. From the David Warnock Medical Museum collection.

On display was a ship medicine chest from the 1860s, complete with original bottles of medicine containing things like potassium bromide and bismuth carbide (used to treat indigestion). And as I visited on Anzac Day there was a special display on military medicine. Included in the display was a German first aid kit brought back to Palmerston North after the Second World War.

Towards the end of my visit I was absolutely delighted to see Cindy Lilburn, the Collections Manager from Palmerston North museum Te Manawa, amongst those in the museum. Cindy has been at Te Manawa for over 40 years, and I have known her for a decade. When I was a Museum Studies student, Cindy was the person who taught me all about collections management. Incidentally, the Museum Studies post-graduate course is the same one that Dr David Warnock graduated from when his interests turned from practicing medicine to preserving its history. Cindy has helped the committee and volunteers of the Medical Museum over the last months to rationalise their collections. These are always hard conversations to have with people who have emotional connections to objects and their histories. How do you ask someone to choose between two, or three, or four of the same objects in a collection because there is only space for one? Cindy said that the committee and volunteers have removed a great deal from the collection through the process.

What is left on display at the museum still completely fills the building that has housed it since 1980. All of it needs rehousing within a month. I don’t envy the task ahead of finding a new home for the collection but hope that an organisation within the local community is able to assist.

In the meantime, the committee members allowed me to photograph as much of the collection as I wanted. So at the very least, access to some of the collection and how it was displayed will remain here, on Our Health Journeys.

An update: July 2023

The wonderful team at the David Warnock Medical Museum spent 14 straight days packing and moving the museum's collections. An enormous undertaking wonderfully assisted by a removal team who donated their time, advice and equipment for two days to move three truckloads - I am told it was all but 20 objects and the Iron Lung.

Though the collections have been split across separate storage locations including Te Manawa, they were extensively catalogued, numbered with swing tags, boxed and receipted. Everything going well, the museum will be able to do pop up exhibitions while they continue to work towards a new, permanent home.