Further Reflection on the Original Identity Program: (Un)usual Collaborations

CMNH entrance image

Entrance of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo Courtesy of Laura Dempsey and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Editor’s Note: This post is one of two pieces on the Original Identity program. Read the other post here.

By: Nicole M. Burt, PhD

N.M. Burt is the curator of Human Health and Evolutionary Medicine at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, Ohio.

Over a year ago, my colleagues and now coauthors at the Center of Excellence in Primary Care Education – Transforming Outpatient Care (CoEPCE-TOPC), at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center, approached me regarding a collaboration using the Human Origins Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH). They wanted to create an innovative short program on health care disparities for their interprofessional training program, which is the subject of our recently published article in Academic Medicine. The program describes “Original Identity,” a unique approach to the topic of health disparities that was developed by maximizing the resources of both institutions to bring the interprofessional health care learners on a journey that starts with our shared biological heritage then moves to how to apply this new knowledge in their practice.

Fostering health
The CMNH has a simple mission: “To inspire, through science and education, a passion for nature, the protection of natural diversity, the fostering of health and leadership to a sustainable future.” As you can see, we like a challenge. As the curator of Human Health and Evolutionary Medicine, it is my job not only to translate the science of health to the public through my own research but also through teaching. Informal education is now well established as a great way to enhance K-12 education,1 but how often do most adults go on a field trip or discuss an everyday aspect of their job using a new paradigm?

For the Original Identity program, we ask learners to be open to new thoughts and to challenge their beliefs and biases. We start at the beginning with the evolution of our earliest hominin ancestors in Africa and the evolution of Homo sapiens before our eventual dispersal around the globe. But rather than leaving our discussion of evolution there, we continue to talk about how both biology and culture shape the human experience using examples, such as the biocultural construct of race, that relate directly to current issues with interpreting health disparity data, noting that in humans it can be difficult to sort the biological from the cultural or environmental.

Having previously taught gross anatomy to medical students, I was aware that most students arrived at medical school with no training in evolutionary theory or human diversity and rarely take such classes in medical school. To me, the anthropological framework, which focuses on evolutionary theory and human diversity, had the potential to transform how clinicians think and approach their practice. With the Original Identity program, my VA colleagues and I try to guide the learners to incorporate these new ideas into their practice and to identify their own biases. What does it mean that humans are 99% genetically similar?2,3 Similarly, what does it mean that race can be a biocultural construct and yet health disparities are very real?

CMNH exhibit image

The Human Origins Gallery, featuring “Lucy” the first Australopithecus afarensis fossil, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo Courtesy of Laura Dempsey and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

New collaborations
As a biological anthropologist, I am accustomed to researching and teaching in an interdisciplinary world. My love of learning at the intersections is probably why I’m an anthropologist and why I work at a museum. As such, I seek out both usual and unusual partnerships as sources of great knowledge and opportunity. The world is increasingly connected, and collaborations of all kinds are helping to create hybrid pedagogical approaches that can support the complex and changing knowledge base needed to be a medical professional. I hope more academic medical institutions try something novel by reaching out to museums and other cultural organizations in their communities.


  1. Martin AJ, Durksen TL, Williamson D, Kiss J, Ginns P. The role of museum-based science education program in promoting content knowledge and science motivation. J Res Sci Teach. 2016:53:1364–1384.
  2. Mersha TB, Abebe T. Self-reported race/ethnicity in the age of genomic research: Its potential impact on understanding health disparities. Hum Genomics. 2015:9:1.
  3. Rotimi CN. Are medical and nonmedical uses of large-scale genomic markers conflating genetics and ‘race’? Nat Genet. 2004;36(11 Suppl):S43–S47.

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