Biomedicine in museums

Artefacts meeting in Leiden — final programme

By September 2, 2011 No Comments

Eventually, the final program for the annual Artefacts meeting (this year in Leiden), has just been sent out. Three of us here at Medical Museion (Louise Whiteley, Niels Vilstrup and myself) are going — here are Louise’s and my abstracts:

Louise Whiteley: Preserving the material culture of functional neuroimaging: Objects of process
Functional neuroimaging research aims to reveal the physical basis of the mind. Since the late 1980s, functional neuroimaging has been a prominent player in contemporary neuroscience, and its strong public profile and invocation in policy contexts also argue for the importance of preserving and engaging with its material culture. Yet brain scanners are not natural museum objects; huge, heavy, and expensive, their most salient sensory qualities derive from the operation of a giant magnet cooled by helium gas and encased in a shielded room. Here I argue that attending to the trajectory from experiment design to data presentation offers us an array of new objects to consider, and new possibilities for engagement with this potent technology. I discuss the collection of computer tasks designed to recreate phenomena such as love or religious experience in the scanner; of objects such as vats of earplugs, restraining cages, and stimulus delivery devices; and of brain scans considered as contingent endpoints of fluid, computational analysis. Finally, I consider how distributed curation of such ‘objects of process’ could bring into productive interaction the interests of neuroscientists, visitors, and a developing critical discourse about the social implications of neuroimaging that is already challenging boundaries of expertise.

Louise Whiteley is an Assistant Professor at Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen. She has a PhD in Neuroscience and MSc in Science Communication, co-directed the Wellcome Trust funded public engagement project Interior Traces, and recently completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Neuroethics. She is interested in using qualitative research to both study and shape public engagement with the social, ethical, and philosophical ‘implications’ of contemporary biomedical science.

Thomas Soderqvist: COLLECTION IMPOSSIBLE: Distributed curatorship and crowd-sourcing as alternatives to centralised collecting
Centralised collecting of the artefacts from contemporary science, technology and medical (STM) visual and material culture seems to have rather bleak prospects. The looming financial and social global crisis is not conducive to centralized efforts by big museums to save the contemporary STM heritage, not least because the modern state-subsidised museum institution is running out of funding (at least in the West). What can curators then do to uphold their professional obligation to rescue the contemporary STM heritage for future generations? In this paper I will discuss two alternative collecting strategies: distributed curatorship and crowd-sourcing. I suggest that the major aim of STM museum acquisition curators should rather be to raise the general awareness among scientists and the engineering and medical professions of the importance of preserving ‘their’ artefacts (heritagemindedness). Drawing on a historical analogy (biological standardisation in the 1950s), I also suggest that this aim might be achieved best by working out guidelines for the collection, preservation and curation of artefacts to be distributed to individual scientists, doctors and engineers in research institutions and private companies, and to interested members of the public. Presently, social media is probably the best vehicle for producing such guidelines and spreading them widely.

Thomas Soderqvist is professor in the history of medicine and Director of Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen. His research specialty is the history and historical methodology of 20th century life sciences and medicine (e.g., The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology, co-ed, 2007), and he has also written about the problems of collecting and displaying contemporary medical science and technology.

Thomas Söderqvist

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