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Monthly Archives

July 2007

The first DNA image maker dies — who will make the iconic images of postgenomics?

By Biomedicine in museums

Odile Crick — who drew the first image model of DNA for Jim Watson and Francis Crick’s original 1953 paper in Nature:


  has died at the age of 86, according to The New York Times today.

In a “brief interview” (one can imagine his impatience with the journalist), Watson recalls why Crick’s wife was asked to make the sketch: “Francis can’t draw, and I can’t draw, and we need something done quick”, and adds: “And it became historically important, reproduced over and over.”

Rightly so; as Terry Sejnowski, the present Francis Crick Professor (sic!) at the Salk Institute, points out, Mrs. Crick’s sketch has had “iconic importance beyond its scientific value; it came to symbolize man’s discovery of the biological basis of life and evolution”.

It’s an historical irony that the creator of the original iconic image model dies at at a time when DNA no longer serves as an useful icon of the life sciences. Everybody is simply fed up with DNA! The postgenomic picture is so much more complicated, and cries for other icons. So which are the images that may “symbolize man’s discovery” of posttranscriptional and posttranslational biology?

Biotech and biomedicine are framed as cool by Danish news media

By Biomedicine in museums

Danish news media have reported today about the results of this year’s university entrance competition. The top story on Danish TV2 was about a young woman whose wildest dream were now being fulfilled — she had been accepted to the molecular biomedicine programme at the University of Copenhagen. Are the news media about to change their attitude to the biomolecular stuff? Maybe it’s time to open a Molecular Tea House! Anyway, this bodes well for possible student participation in the ‘Art and Biomedicine: Beyond the Body’-conference on September 3.

The human remains problem — new aspects (according to The Onion)

By Biomedicine in museums

Earlier (here, here, and here) we have written about the human remains problem in a museum context. Now, The Onion — indisputably ‘America’s finest news source’ and my Number One satirical news source — of 26 July reports on a somewhat different aspects, viz., that human bodies are so contaminated that they cannot be disposed of in a ecologically safe manner. Under the heading “EPA Warns Human Beings No Longer Biodegradable“, The Onion writes:

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a bulletin Tuesday warning the bodies of American citizens, with their large concentrations of artificial, synthetic, and often toxic substances, have been reclassified as industrial waste. “The average human body is now only 35 percent organic,” EPA chief Ralph Johnson said. “Due to changes brought about by modern detergents, silicone implants, and processed cheese food product, it is no longer safe to allow human tissue to come into contact with our nation’s topsoil.” Johnson said the EPA is seeking funding to construct a massive, federally managed human-body containment facility in the Mojave Desert to safely and viably store human remains.

It reminds me of the report earlier this spring about exploding pacemakers in crematoria. Dead bodies are apparantly an increasing waste problem in the (post)-modern world.

The telescopic body

By Biomedicine in museums

We’re used to think of the ‘microscopic body’ that was invented in the mid-19th century as a continuation of the ‘anatomical body’. Now, exploring “different modes of visuality (pre-modern, modern, post-modern) in medical-science imagery”, Kristen Ehrenberger, an MD and doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests the concept of the ‘telescopic body’, a form of representation that “situates individuals in relation to society from the level of the microscopic insides of a person’s insides all the way up to the national level”.

This sounds like an interesting addition to the array of ‘scopics’ that historians of medicine are increasingly using in their analytical work. There are also possible museological implications; for example, I’m curious to know how the notion of ‘telescopic body’ connects with the presentation Kristen made a couple of years ago on “The Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, the Transparent Man, and productive science museum memory”. Food for discussion!

The idea of a ‘telescopic body’ is the topic for a seminar at the National Library of Medicine next Wednesday, August 1. For details about this and other history of medicine seminars at the NLM, see here.

Scientific objects in transition – new exhibition in Berlin

By Biomedicine in museums

Two years ago, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPI-WG) took the initative to an international research network, ‘History of scientific objects’. So far, the network’s primary activity has been a European wandering seminar taking place in May and June 2006, which we were happy to host here at Medical Museion for a week (see report here), before they continued to other sites around Europe.

One of the results of the touring seminar is the exhibition ‘Objects in Transition’ that opens at MPI-WG in Dahlem on Thursday 16 August and closes three weeks later, on Sunday 2 September. (The German name of the exhibition is ‘Objekte in Bewegung’ — does “Bewegung’ really mean the same thing as ‘transition’?)

The three exhibition curators — Gianenrico Bernasconi, Anna Märker and Susanne Pickert — were all part of the touring seminar group. It will be exciting to see how they have succeeded to integrate a number of the conceptual viewpoints that were discussed at the seminar (scientific objects, biographies of objects, transitions between changing contexts, etc.) with the exhibition medium. Here are two quotes from the invitation folder:

… what constitutes the scientific character of an exhibit? Where do scientific objects some from, and where do they go when scientists have lost interest in them? ‘Objects in transition’ illuminates the biographies of various objects: from everyday life, into the spotllight of scientific curiosity, from preparation to icon, from specimen to souvenir, from model to toy.


Generally, objects remain in a scientific context for a limited amount of time. When they are no longer the centre of scientific attention they may re-enter the realm of everyday things. Frequently, objects can appear in museums, as cultural icons, or in commercial contexts, and thus potentially lose their scientific character.

There will be a catalogue (forthcoming). So far they don’t have an exhibition website, but it may come later.

I’m in Berlin in mid-August and will back with a full report a.s.a.p.

The 'post museum' paradox: University Museums and Collections (UMAC) conference programme (Vienna 20-22 August) available

By Biomedicine in museums

The final programme for the University Museums and Collections (UMAC) meeting in Vienna, 20-22 August has just been released (see here), together with the abstracts. There seems to be quite a few interesting papers among them; for example, I would love to hear what Graciela de la Torre from The National Autonomus University of Mexico (and Board Member of UMAC) has to say about “The ‘Post Museum’ Paradox”:

It is rather worrying that well into the 21st century, museums are still considered reservoirs of knowledge whose main function is to exhibit and study the valuable products generated by man or to demonstrate natural phenomena. It is worrying that they be seen as data banks that make knowledge more democratic; that they are projected as places where, with their enormous knowledge and generosity, they take the spectator by the hand and enable him in the pleasure of the discourses they unfold; that they are judged according to the approval of the speciality they reflect, be that artistic, technical, scientific or any other among many typological possibilities imposed by their collections. It is not so strange then that tired and practically universally accepted definitions are repeated over again to describe the duties of the museum and that epistemologically it is still the place where a world is made orderly, where, with the help of material objects, the world is “realized”, understood and mediated. However, we are in the post historic era and this is, or should also be, the era of the post museum. Today the “museum” exceeds the physical limits of the architectural understanding and the functional limits of its capacity as an educational instrument in order to assume the role of a knot of crosses for the multiple processes that are possible for the construction of knowledge. In the post museum, the human being replaces the collection and takes over as the main element in the museum occurrence, in the construction of the significant experience towards knowledge and in the holistic interaction with exhibitive didacticism. We are certain that exhausted museum models are crying for renovation and that one of the most viable fields in which to generate a new paradigm could very well be the university museum.

More here.

Science Museum is looking for a new curator for their medical galleries, exhibitions and websites

By Biomedicine in museums

Science Museum in London is looking for a new curator in medical science/clinical medicine whose main role will be to develop exhibitions, galleries, websites and publications. They are looking for a person with at least a Masters degree and who has “a broad understanding of the history of modern medicine (post-1750), especially its clinical and/or laboratory aspects, and the capacity to grasp and interpret recent and current medical trends”. Further info on — note that the closing date is already 20 August 2007.

Annual Report 2007

By Biomedicine in museums

The Annual Report of Medical Museion (Årsskrift for Medicinsk Museion) has just been published and is about to be distributed. This post has been created for readers’ comments. You can choose to air your ire or stimulate our vanity receptors. (You can write in English or in any Scandinavian language.)

If you are not on our snail mail distribution list (which you will discover when your copy fails to arrive in your snail mail box) can order the annual report by writing to Monica Lambert, — it costs 100 DKK + postage. 

Public understanding of biotech and biomedicine — the web-based lecture circuit vs. science museums

By Biomedicine in museums

With respect to the PLUS (Public Learning and Understanding of Science) aspect of our work, we, as a public outreach-oriented university department and museum, are in constant competition with web-based media — so I guess it’s important for us to get an overview of what is happening out there.

My general feeling is that the whole PLUS field is undergoing quite profound changes right now. For example, the rapid expansion of web-based science lectures has strenghtened the direct channels between specialists and the general public (and channels that host specialists), at the expense of mediation by science journalists and professionals in science didactics.

What’s happening is analogous, I think, to what’s going on in the field of medical and health information. It’s well-known that internet-savvy patients are increasingly shortcutting the primary health system to learn about their conditions through the web instead. Educated and well-informed health consumers prefer to search for specialised knowledge directly on the web instead of passing by their GP (in this case literally the ‘general’ practioner).

Likewise, educated people who want to know more about biotech and biomedicine tend to bypass the traditional media and search for knowledge closer to the research source (although not as close as research articles).  

Many universities, especially in the US, are increasingly putting their biotech and biomedicine lecture material on-line. You can find pod- and videocasts about almost anything in biotech and biomedicine that your heart may desire. I found this Openculture post (from October 2006, but updated through continuous comments) quite useful for an overview of what’s available.

There are also some good commercial ressources, for example the Henry Stewart Talks series of over 500 audiovisual presentations, made by leading biotech and biomedicine scientists who lecture about recent developments in their special fields. These are up-to-date and are probably as good as any specialised biotech and biomedicine science lecture you can attend in your own elite university (and thus heftily priced).

So with respect to PLUS purposes, science museums and science centers are in a severe competition with both commercial and open source web-based teaching tools. Downloadable (and sometimes animated) videos and pod- and videocasts are increasingly doing a much better job than museums on the PLUS front.

I guess this competion will force science museums to rethink their strengths and strategies. If they cannot compete on the PLUS arena, what can they instead provide better than web-based media? As web-based ‘public learning and understanding of biotech and biomedicine’ becomes better and better, the answer to that question becomes more and more urgent.