“This institution was never meant for me”: the Impact of Institutional Historical Portraiture on Medical Students

Many academic institutions are reexamining their relationship to historical artwork in shared or public spaces, and questioning the continued commemoration of figures who participated in and benefited from slavery, colonization, and the oppression of marginalized populations.1,2,3,4,5 This qualitative project examined how Yale School of Medicine (YSM) students responded to institutional portraiture at Sterling Hall of Medicine (SHM)–the flagship building on the medical school campus.

METHODS

We conducted a qualitative interview study of Yale medical students from the classes of 2018–2021 to assess their perspective on institutional portraiture. Students were recruited by email. This study was approved by the Yale Human Subjects Committee. Confidential, one-on-one interviews were scheduled with one of two interviewers (EF, NA) who developed the interview guide (Table 1). Twelve of 15 interviewees answered a brief demographic survey: 5 identified as male, 7 as female. Self-reported ethnic identities (respondents selected one or more) included: African-American (n = 1), Black (n = 1), East Asian (n = 2), Hispanic (n = 2), North-African (n = 1), South Asian (n = 3), and white (n = 4). Interviews ceased when thematic saturation was reached, as determined by no new themes emerging during coding of transcripts. Interviewees were asked open-ended questions about feelings of belonging and the SHM portraits, which consist of three portraits of white women and 52 portraits of white men.

Table 1 Select Questions from Interview Guide

RESULTS

We identified four major themes. Table 2 provides representative quotes:

  1. 1.

    Institutional values: Many interviewees described the portraits as a visual demonstration of YSM’s values, which they identified as whiteness, elitism, maleness, and power. Some noted that the portraits exacerbated feelings of being judged and unwelcome at the institution, but also saw the potential for change, and imagined a visual culture that could include and inspire them.

  2. 2.

    Resignation and coping: Some interviewees expressed an attitude of resignation regarding the visual culture, since portraits of white men seemed to be the status quo at similar institutions. Students who found the portraits alienating described coping mechanisms, such as making jokes and avoiding areas where portraits are displayed.

  3. 3.

    Contemporary consequences: Many interviewees commented on how the paucity of diverse role models, both among current faculty and in the portraits, affected their sense of belonging at YSM. For some, the portraiture underscored the feeling that they did not belong, saying: “This institution was never meant for me.” They believed that many classmates, particularly white men, were indifferent to the portraits. Many interviewees questioned the process of determining who deserved a portrait. Most believed the portraits commemorated YSM’s most impressive faculty and donors, but wondered if any had benefited from slavery and colonization, or opposed the admission of women or non-white students to YSM. Some respondents indicated that by displaying these portraits, YSM implicitly endorsed those values as well.

  4. 4.

    Erasure of history: A few students believed that history would be altered if the portraits were removed. Others felt that the existing portraits downplayed the real or potential racist or sexist beliefs of the commemorated figures, and erased contributions of women and people of color.

Table 2 Themes and Representative Quotes Regarding Medical Students’ Views of Institutional Portraiture

DISCUSSION

Institutional portraiture affects students’ sense of belonging. Sampled students consider portraits active reflections of the institution’s current values, rather than passive or apolitical relics.

For many interviewed students, the portraiture signified that they did not fit the model of the ideal Yale physician. While some felt that their accomplishments were appreciated, they wondered whether YSM would recognize them or other women and non-white students over the longer term.

Interviewed students described a disconnect between YSM’s stated values of diversity and inclusion and the promotion of figures who may have benefited from slavery, colonization, or structural oppression. Some felt that YSM did not value their lived experiences or recognize their discomfort with the portraits. Some feel resigned to this and have developed coping mechanisms.

CONCLUSION

Visual culture can be experienced by some as encoding an institution’s values and providing messaging to its members about belonging. For our sample, historical portraiture and visual culture in medical schools often had a negative impact, experienced as reflecting the values of the institution with regard to racial and gender diversity. Institutions should reflect on the implicit message they may be conveying with historical portraiture.

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Acknowledgments

Elizabeth Fitzsousa was funded by the YSM Medical Student Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Fitzsousa BA.

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Fitzsousa, E., Anderson, N. & Reisman, A. “This institution was never meant for me”: the Impact of Institutional Historical Portraiture on Medical Students. J GEN INTERN MED 34, 2738–2739 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05138-9

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