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Monthly Archives

August 2007

David Edgerton's The Shock of the Old — a politically correct good read

By Biomedicine in museums

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us (Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10; from the King James Bible)

David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 is in many ways a splendid book. It has a clear and well-argued thesis, it reflects the author’s long research experience and command of the history of technology literature, and it is well-written and eminently readable for a non-specialist audience. In addition, much of its argument is as relevant for (medical) museum curators as it is for bookish historians of (medical) technology.

Consequently reviewers have been quite enthusiastic, for example Steve Shapin in The New Yorker (14 May) and Steven Yearley in the TLS (25 May; no link because the TLS is the stingiest culture magazine on earth, they never put a single fragment of content online for public use).

The idea is quite simple, and not entirely new (indeed Edgerton acknowledges that Svante Lindqvist, for one, has expressed similar ideas before, but only does so in a footnote). Criticising a traditional innovaton/invention-oriented history of technology, he shifts the perspective from novelties to the long durée of technological applications and use; this is part of a more general historiographical shift:

from the new to the old, the big to the small, the spectacular to the mundane, the masculine to the feminine, the rich to the poor” (p. xiv).

What’s historically significant then, in Edgerton’s view, is not how one damned new gimmick substitutes another over and over again, but how old technologies linger on and continue to play a significant social and cultural role long after they were innovations, not least in the less developed parts of the world. That’s ‘the shock of the old’.

It’s a sympathetic (but also very politically correct) approach, which can be read as a much needed antidote to a traditional innovation-oriented historiography. It is full of good and surprising examples, although it sometimes reads like a dead horse flogging exercise; after all, many social historians of technology over the years have said much that Edgerton would have difficulties to quarrel with. (Museum curators, on the other hand probably can learn more from reading it).

My major objection, however, is that Edgerton seems to undervalue the importance of a invention/innovation-driven historiography as a source of inspiration. In this he is not alone, of course. The anti-whig tradition in history of science, technology and medicine has generally been blind to the possibility that the critique of a history of innovation (and discovery and progress) may be a very innovative step for historians — but not necessarily useful for scientists, engineers and medical doctors.

If this is so, it opens up for an interesting metahistoriographical problem: If one applies Edgerton’s innovation- vs. use-oriented historiographical approach to historical scholarship itself, one will soon realise that almost all historians view their own practice in terms of historiographical innovation/innovation, but usually dismiss a user-perspective on historiography.

However, from a user-perspective (from the point of view of those who read history, for example scientists and engineeers) it would perhaps be as, and even more, relevant/useful to write a traditional innovation-oriented history? And maybe it is more useful because it stimulates the scientific/engineering imagination? While a user-oriented historiography easily becomes unimaginative, boring — and mundane.

But this book is neither unimaginative, boring or mundane. It’s a very masculine, rich and spectacular book. As the publisher’s jacket blurb points out: “The Shock of the Old radically revises our understanding … [it] is a radical new way of thinking about history and technology”. So much for the possibility of a shock of the old historiography! The anonymous authors of the Ecclesiastes must be disappointed with David Edgerton!

(If you read Swedish, see also the short discusison about Edgerton’s book between Gustav Holmberg and myself on

Visualizing laboratory life — new web tools for the formation of biocitizenship

By Biomedicine in museums

The on-line Journal of Visualized Experiments (mentioned in an earlier post on this blog), was the first web-based service dedicated to visual demonstrations of experimental methods and protocols. It has been followed by others, for example, LabAction. Both were started by young lab people with little financial backing and both (especially LabAction) have a nice YouTube feel about them.

As a commentator in yesterday web-issue of The Scientist points out these sites so far have fairly few visitors (100-500 a day to their combined collection of 115 videos), compared to the many thousands of daily unique visitors to the Nature Protocols website. Nature Protocols don’t have so many videos on-line yet, but what they display is usually of high quality and resolution, as you can see from this mpg-file which shows how one removes nuclear material from a mouse oocyte. (There are many more here.)

Sites like these have been set up by scientists for scientists, like ordinary scientific journals. But they may soon begin to play a role in the formation of ‘biocitizenship’ (for a critical evaluation of the concept, see here). Right now most of these videos are technically too specialised, and they leave a lot of tacit knowledge and contextual information out. But I guess it’s only a question of time before other versions that are more relevant for a somewhat broader audience begin to circulate on the net and mix with millions of other videos — and thereby inject some ‘biotechmindedness’ into the web-savvy population. (Thanks to Mats for drawing my attention to the idea of ‘X-mindedness’.)

Bioartists as moral arbiters in biosociety?

By Biomedicine in museums

The Arts & Genomics Centre at Leiden University is announcing three-month bioartist-in-residence positions as part of a larger research programme called ‘Imagining Genomics: Introducing Visuality in the Genomics Debate’ which focusus on “the role of visual art in moral debates on genomics”. The results of the bioart-in-residence projects are planned to be displayed in the Dutch National Museum of Natural History, Naturalis. The application deadline is 1 September, i.e., already next week. For further details, see here.

I think this announcement is interesting for the way it connects visual art and moral debate. This is not an unproblematic connection. The use of art for moral arbitration has a troubled history indeed, and it would be interesting to hear further arguments for and against the use of art-works in contemporary moral discourse about biosociety. We will get ample opportunities for this at next week’s workshop on “Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context” here at Medical Museion, where several participants are working on related research projects.

(thanks to Ingeborg for drawing attention to the announcement)

Neurosurgeon at the age of 100

By Biomedicine in museums

I have to confess (blushingly) that I find this short, and very PICOnion News Network news item about the 100 year old neurosurgeon Carl Wainwright quite funny.

Probably because it (somehow obliquely) reminds me of this summer’s much belated but nevertheless extraordinary reading experience — Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, in which the major protagonist is a perfect neurosurgeon in his prime.

It also (and more embarassingly, I think) reminds me of our own temporary exhibition ‘Oldetopia’ that is scheduled to open on October 11, and which includes a series of 15 absolutely fantastic pictures of 100 year old Danish men and women made by artist Liv Carlé Mortensen. More about the exhibition in a later post — and hopefully, by then, I will be able to erase my inner images of Dr. Wainwright.

As usual when it comes to news from The Onion, one should listen to the story with a huge pinch of salt (as they say  ‘The Onion is not intended for readers under 18 years of age’) but it may still have a lasting effect, I am afraid.

Sound art work 'Labyrinthitis' by Jacob Kirkegaard, Medical Museion, Sunday 2 September

By Biomedicine in museums

In connection with the conference ‘Art and Biomedicine: Beyond the Body’ held Monday 3 September, Medical Museion has commissioned sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard to create a new work.

Jacob Kirkegaard has turned his listening ear inwards – to his own ear. By using specially developed listening equipment, he has captured the microactivity which the hair cells of the ear send out.

LABYRINTHITIS consists entirely of sounds generated in Jacob Kirkegaard’s own ears. Deep inside the cochlea there are thousands of microscopic hair cells functioning as sensory receptors. When sound enters the ear, they begin to vibrate in the watery liquid surrounding them, like underwater piano strings.

Thus, the hearing organ does not only receive sound. It also generates sound, just like an acoustic instrument. Some of the hair cells in the cochlea can change their shape to such an extent that they are enabled to move the basilar membrane and produce sound themselves.

These faint tones resemble the sound of a tinnitus – and they can be recorded with a microphone in the ear canal.

Jacob Kirkegaard employs the 1787 auditorium of Medical Museion as well as the audience for his composition: His listeners become part of an interactive concert as their own auditory organs respond to the tones played out into the auditorium. The room, at the same time, turns into one big resonant labyrinth of sound.

Jacob Kirkegaard LABYRINTHITIS

  • Disorientation (Preludium)
  • Vertigo (Canon)
  • Nausea (Finale)

played on The Spiral Organ will be performed in Medical Museion, Bredgade 62, Copenhagen on Sunday 2 September 2007, at 6pm, 8pm and 10pm. Entrance is free, but seat reservations are necessary. Please write to, indicating which of the three performances you prefer to attend.

For background information, please see

(The news about Jacob’s performance have been registered by, among others, Networked Music Review,

Biomedicine and Art: Beyond the Body

By Biomedicine in museums

Just want to remind you all that we are arranging the public conference “Art and Biomedicine: Beyond the Body” here in Copenhagen on Monday 3 September, 10 am – 5 pm.

Confirmed speakers include

  • Ken Arnold, Wellcome Collection, London
  • James Elkins, The Art Institute of Chicago
  • Ben Fry, MIT Media Lab
  • Wolfgang Knapp, Universität der Künste, Berlin
  • Steve Kurtz, SUNY-Buffalo and Critical Art Ensemble
  • Ingeborg Reichle, Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities
  • Richard Wingate, UK Medical Research Council Centre, King’s College, London

For detailed program, including venue, titles and abstracts, see

No registration necessary. For inquiries, contact Monica Lambert,

Image communication in life sciences and medicine

By Biomedicine in museums

I love to discover new professional fields and knowledge-practices that I’ve never heard of before. Today Street Anatomy opened up the virtual door to one of them, viz., that of biocommunication and biovisualisation (formerly medical illustration).

I believe what these professionals do is of great significance for what we are trying to achieve in medical museums, including this humble institution, especially exhibitionwise.

Take for example The BioCommunications Association (BCA), which was founded as the Biological Photographic Association in 1931 and now has a much wider mission, i.e., to be an international association of media professionals who “create and use quality images in visual communications for teaching, documentation and presentations in the life sciences and medicine”. Thus the BCA includes people working with computer graphics, digital imaging, biophotography, videography, teleconferencing, scientific poster production, etc. — for the purpose of biological and medical communication (but it looks like the photographers are still setting the tone of their annual meetings).

They also have an annual competition (the BioImages Salon) with some great images among the finalists (unfortunately the images cannot be copied from the site; these guys are professionals: they know how to protect their IPRs).

Their link page is awesome — enough for a week’s browsing in this (to me) new and exciting professional field. When will there be time over?

Added: Is this a professional field in trouble, institutionwise? Penn’s Medical School decided in 2002 to close their department of Biomedical Communications (to the dismay of its former director). Maybe these are knowledge-practices and skills that are so widely used now that they cannot be confined to a special uni dept? Does anyone know?

Street Anatomy: another inspirational blog for medical museum curators

By Biomedicine in museums

One of our new blog siblings is Street Anatomy: Medicine + Art + Design, created in December 2006 by Vanessa Ruiz,


a graduate student in the Biomedical Visualization programme at the University of Illinois (Chicago) — this is the largest medical illustration program in the US, with their own Virtual Reality in Medicine lab. A kind of ‘medicine on display’ programme.

As Vanessa points out, most of us tend to have a rather dated understanding of what ‘medical illustration’ is. I, for one, always thought of medical illustrators as people who could handle a pencil and a water colour brush. Not anymore: “they use their artistic skills combined with technology to produce dynamic visualizations” in the form of illustrations, graphics, animations, 3D models etc. Partly to educate medical doctors and students, but also to encourage the public’s engagement with medicine: “we persuade people to learn by engaging them with visual media that will educate them to take care of and maintain their bodies”.

Accordingly Vanessa’s blog is heavily illustrated — with a lot of stuff that medical museum curators could learn quite a few tricks from.

It will be exciting to learn more of what goes on in the field of medical illustration and biomedical visualisation. Does anyone know about other great sites in this field?