Conferences report, John Manton

JM conference
‘Cultural performance from HOMSEA Conference, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Jan 2016’

While travelling to carry out archival research in The Philippines in January and February 2016, I took the opportunity to attend two conferences, a workshop, and a symposium, giving papers at two of these events, and facilitating a public engagement session at a third. The first opportunity, directly relevant to the History of Health Systems research I’m currently carrying out, was to give a paper on the history of health planning in Southeast Asia at the 6th History of Medicine in Southeast Asia (HOMSEA) Conference in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in mid January. As a researcher more familiar with medical themes in African history, I was forced to pedal furiously to keep up to speed with a decade of conversation among many of the attendees; the conference was challenging, and intensely stimulating. Together with two or three scholars also comparing across regions (between Africa and Southeast Asia, and between South and Southeast Asia), we felt that we opened up a very useful conversation on contrasts and convergences across the developing and colonial/postcolonial worlds, with the promise of an ongoing thematic cross-fertilisation.

Indeed, conversations which began in Siem Reap continued through the events I attended over the next month. I saw now familiar faces, and met colleagues of HOMSEA attendees at an international symposium on the history of Leprosy/Hansen’s Disease in Tokyo at the end of January. The symposium opened with a tour of the National Hansen’s Disease Museum on the grounds of the National Sanatorium, a reminiscence of life at the sanatorium offered by former patients and by the reclusive film director Hayao Miyazaki, a near-neighbour of the sanatorium, and a showing of one of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli masterpieces, My Neighbour Totoro. Attended by shoals of reporters and film buffs, this reminiscence was widely covered in the Japan’s media. Later in the symposium, once the star-struck crowd had dissipated, dwindling to an academic and public health hard core, I gave a presentation based on previous research and a radio programme I’d co-produced, and was delighted to see the programme highlighted on the newly relaunched Leprosy History website.

In Tokyo I met with the Director for Disease Control at the Philippines Department of Health, and colleagues of his and representatives of his Department were present at the next series of events during the week of 15-19 Feb. This programme included a workshop and conference either side of the launch of a new book on the history of leprosy in the Philippines. The workshop brought together heads of leprosy control units from across the Philippines to discuss aspects of heritage and memory, from the perspective of heritage and public engagement. I was asked to be a working group facilitator on the progress of existing commemorative projects, and it was eye-opening to be brought face-to-face with the challenges of curating collections and staffing museums in working hospitals and sanatoria.

The week ended with a multi-disciplinary academic conference on the history of leprosy and its control in the Philippines, bringing together social and economic historians, architects, sociologists and cultural critics from Philippines and beyond (including a good number of participants at the earlier HOMSEA conference). After six weeks of research and conference presentations, it was a relief to be an academic tourist at this event, and a pleasure to hear so many interesting papers.