I was saddened today to hear of the death of Marshall Barr, a retired consultant anaesthetist at the Royal Berskhire Hospital in Reading. I met Marshall in 2007 when I was working with Martin Andrews on the redevelopment of the hospital’s medical museum.
Martin and I were both working part-time in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading at the time, where we shared an office in its collection centre, teaming up occasionally on freelance commissions too.
Every Monday for a year we would drive down to London Road, park up in front the Renal Unit, and walk down to the old laundry room in the hospital basement to meet with Marshall and the team of volunteers – all retired doctors and nurses – who staff the museum and care for its collection.
Marshall was warm and funny, always in a good mood, cheerful and charming. You couldn’t say no to him simply because he was such a genuinely nice chap. I remember he used to call me ‘gorgeous Nadja’ in his soft Australian accent whenever he wanted a favour.
He was also incredibly knowledgable of medical history and a gifted storyteller, bringing out object after object from the hospital archives and setting them into context for us. The themes and ideas around which we centred our design just seemed to emerge naturally from our discussions with him.
The museum is structured, both thematically and in terms of the physical space, around key areas of medicine and patient care, including ENT, ophthalmology, pharmacy, and nursing. Each area is represented by recreating a real-life environment – an operating theatre, a room on ward, a dentist’s surgery – combining large image backdrops with real objects.
The material is displayed displayed with a density and richness unusual in twenty-first century museum design. Think Pitt Rivers before it was reopened – Marshall’s doing of course. Each reconstruction scene is headed by a title, and text panels and object captions are colour-coded in a contemporary palette in order to clearly define each section.
Text panels, detailed object captions, wall lettering of selected quotes, timelines and chronologies provide different levels of information that cater for different audiences, and offer variety and choice in exploring the museum.
I learnt a lot from Marshall – a great many things about poking and prodding the human body that I never wanted to know, and many, many more things I always wanted to know but had never had explained to me so clearly, patiently and enthusiastically. It sounds corny but it’s true: the place won’t be the same without you Marshall, and I will miss you.