History in a Heartbeat

Judy Chelnick ’76, associate curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the
Smithsonian National Museum of American History examines a 15th-century Italian
albarello drug jar. In the background is Yorik, the bionic skeleton.

by Avery Share ’15

Most people would have trouble understanding the purpose for objects like 18th-century European apothecary jars or surgical instruments from Ancient Rome. But for Judy Chelnick ’76, associate curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, weaving a story out of something like an old pill bottle or the preliminary instrumentation used on premature babies in neonatal intensive care units is what she calls, “a lot of fun.”

“Not everybody is that keen about medical instrumentation,” Chelnick says. “But it’s a thrill that these things have survived, and some of them in wonderful condition. The fact that somebody thought that they were important enough to save for the future is fascinating.”

Chelnick, who has had a special interest in cardiology throughout her career, is currently in the first stages of curating objects for an exhibit on the history of artificial heart valves set to come out in August 2016. The process for putting together any exhibit, she says, is about finding the story you want the objects to tell. For the history of artificial heart valves, the story has a lot to do with finding suitable materials. “Physicians worked a long time to find materials that are compatible with the body and that would not be rejected,” she says.

Whether she’s working with cardiology equipment or researching a denture found from the Civil War period, Chelnick says that after 27 years at the Smithsonian, there still is “no typical day.” And for her, that’s one of the best parts about her job.

Other days are spent collaborating with colleagues on new exhibitions and supervising interns. She is also a member of the National Museum of American History’s Collections Committee which acts as an advisory body to the associate director for curatorial affairs on collection development, including acquisitions, outgoing loans, deaccessions, and disposals.

Not only does she give tours to students and tourists who visit the Smithsonian, but as a Professional in Residence for the Salisbury Center for Career, Professional and Experiential Education, she’s also dedicated to mentoring HWS students.

“I want to be able to help students,” she says. “When I was a student, there wasn’t a career development center like there is now, and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to. I know a lot of people who want to work in museums but they don’t really know how go about doing it, so I want to be able to help ease the way for them.”

Although she didn’t have career services at her disposal, Chelnick says that the “superb history department” was instrumental in her decision to pursue a career in museums. In particular, she says it was her “Artifacts in American Culture,” an American studies course that changed the way she looked at everything.

“I started looking at clocks on the wall, I started looking at molding, it just gave me a different perspective of how to look at things and why things were made out of what they were made of and why they were designed a certain way,” Chelnick says. “And everything just grew from there.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.