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E-exhibition explores London through past epidemics

London, like the rest of the world, has been affected in unprecedented ways by the current COVID-19 crisis. Its past has been mired in many epidemics and pandemics over the centuries including plague, cholera, smallpox, influenza and HIV/AIDS.

A digital exhibition launched this week showcases vignettes of this part and offers a peek into historical remedies.

The Museum of London’s ‘Disease X: London’s next epidemic?’, that originally opened between November 2018 and March 2019, is now available online on the museum’s website, while its physical doors remain closed to visitors.

As per the museum, the opening of ‘Disease X’ in 2018 had marked the 100th anniversary of the second and most deadly wave of the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’. The digital exhibition shares the stories, objects and words of the original display to demonstrate what the past can tell us about historical maladies, their impact on London and its people and the different methods used to fight back.

Exhibits include the mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria to mark the shock passing of her grandson Prince Albert Victor due to ‘Russian Flu’; a 17th-century pomander used to waft away the foul smells thought to cause diseases like the plague and a poster advertising ‘Flu-Mal’, which dubiously claimed to combat both influenza and malaria.

“When we opened the exhibition in 2018, almost two years before the current global health crisis, we did not attempt to predict what might cause a future disease outbreak in London, or when it might occur. Instead, we aimed to link past, present and future together by using our historic collections, new historical research and interviews with top epidemiologists and public health experts to look at what impact any future outbreak may have on London,” said Vyki Sparkes, Curator of Social & Working History at the Museum of London, said in a statement.

Adding, “‘Disease X’ explored how London faced many epidemics through history for which it had no cure but also gave notes of hope, including the development of the first vaccine by Edward Jenner, the global eradication of smallpox in 1980 and the pioneering work in reducing HIV infections by 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic. It also provided an important reminder of the people behind the statistics through focusing on the personal stories of four Londoners who sadly died during the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic.”

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