Program in Humanities and the Arts

Program Leader: Virginia Aita, PhD

The Humanities and Arts program includes both educational and research endeavors as well as public events to highlight the importance of the medical humanities and arts in fostering an understanding of health and illness issues. 

The educational aspect includes voluntary medical humanities interest groups for both the UNMC faculty and staff and a separate group for students that is supported by the Wilson Foundation for Humanities in Medicine.  The Wilson Humanities in Medicine Foundation also sponsors the annual Wilson Lecture dedicated to bringing national speakers to UNMC to speak on topics concerning the humanities and medicine. Another innovative educational program is the "Enhanced Medical Education Tract for Medical Humanities and Arts" that admitted its first three medical students in 2009. The program allows a select number of medical students interested in the humanities and arts to pursue humanistic or artistic research concerning questions about which they are curious under the mentorship of expert faculty.  Also ongoing is the Humanities and Ethics component of the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) series. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation since 2005, the series has been recruiting and training students from underserved areas in order to inspire a spirit of service and desire to further their health careers in order to serve minority and vulnerable populations.

The program in Humanities and Arts also includes a research component. Center faculty members work cooperatively with colleagues throughout UNMC and with others in the arts and humanities. Two significant research studies have come out of this kind of collaboration. One study is the Patient and Caregiver Portraiture Project. In this study, investigators Drs. Virginia Aita and William Lydiatt worked collaboratively with an artist-in-residence, Mark Gilbert, to explore the ideas of care and caregiving through portraiture. Portraits were analyzed by a multidisciplinary group of experts in art, medicine, and qualitative research to better understand the visual qualities of care and caregiving. Findings were later confirmed by a sample of public viewers during the inaugural exhibition of works. A second study was the "Teaching Observational Skills through the Arts." In this study the artist-in-residence, Mark Gilbert, and U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and FBI investigators taught observational skills that they use via drawing, poetry, and crime scene investigation respectively to medical students. Study investigators Lydiatt and Aita hope to establish whether or not students who have participated in the study intervention become more critical observers as a result. This study is ongoing.

Finally public events to highlight the medical humanities and arts are organized. The initial large public event was associated with the 2005 exhibition, "Saving Faces: Art and Medicine" planned by Drs. Virginia Aita, William Lydiatt and Gallery Director Deborah Lombard as well as many other UNMC and UNO faculty and staff to bring artist Mark Gilbert's Saving Faces paintings to Omaha from London where they were shown at the UNO Art Gallery. Along with the exhibition ran a series of public lectures to highlight issues raised by the paintings of before and after images of patients who had undergone head and neck surgery. As a result of this exhibition, the opportunity arose to invite Mark Gilbert to become an artist-in-residence at UNMC. The second significant public exhibition and associated lectures featured Mark Gilbert's art works resulting from the Portraiture study mentioned above. The 2009 exhibition called "Here I Am Now and Nowhere Else: Portraits of Care" and related lectures highlighted aspects of care and caregiving and took place with the collaboration of the Director and staff at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts at the Bemis Gallery.