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Monthly Archives

September 2007

Curators using their sense of touch

By Biomedicine in museums

Continuing on Søren’s post (and Adam’s comment) and further on last week’s post about the short paper that Jan Eric Olsén and I gave at the Artefacts XII meeting at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo, 17-18 September:

In the second part of the presentation we asked two participants to join us in a demonstration to illustrate the importance of touch. Here are some photos from the session.

To the left I explain the demonstration procedure to the audience while the two blindfolded volonteers (Gerard Alberts, Universiteit te Amsterdam, and Robert Bud, Science Museum, London) are waiting to give sensory evidence (Jan Eric stands in the background). On the table in the right picture you can see two of the enigmatic instruments: a rectoscope (ouch!) and a knee reflex hammer. Robert is holding a wooden stethoscop between his fingers (see next pic).







A close shot of Robert trying to describe the sensation of holding an approx. 1850 wooden stetoscope in his hands (he said it felt like something “plastic”):

This short, and of course not very systematic, semi-public demonstration suggests that curators use another, more emotional, vocabulary when they describe objects which they can perceive by means of the tactile sense only. For example, Gerard used the word “dangerous” to describe an artifical hip (not on the photo).

(Thanks to Frode Weium from the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology for providing the pics)

Biocitizenship and participant observations of the pharma pipeline

By Biomedicine in museums

Before I got my recent job I used to teach history of science to biology, chemistry and philosophy students in a small regional university outside Copenhagen (forget the name, you have probably never heard of it anyway). After graduation many of them (not the philosophers, though) were recruited to the burgeoning Danish pharmaceutical industry, including Lundbeck — one of the world’s leading psychopharmacology companies with about ten drugs in their phase I-III pipeline.

It so happens that Lundbeck have their research laboratories right behind my backyard, and sometimes I meet former students on their way to work in the morning. I always wanted to ask them how it is to work in a Big Pharma company: How they do science, how they balance between different interests, how they relate to the sales department and stuff like that. In other words I hoped getting some insiders’ reports from the pipeline.

But we’ve never gone beyond the exchange of a few niceties about old university days, and over the years I’ve been increasingly frustrated over being so regularly reminded about my lack of understanding of how drug discovery really works.

But recently I’ve gotten in the training track for enlightened biocitizenship again — thanks to Derek’s Lowe’s excellent biomedical blog In the Pipeline.

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Karl Grimes' poetic transformation of a natural history museum collection in Dublin

By Biomedicine in museums

During a year as artist-in-residence at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Karl Grimes has curated (or rather re-curated) a joint exhibition with the Gallery of Photography called “Dignified Kings Play Chess on Fine Green Silk” which opens tomorrow, September 27:

In photographs, drawings, lightboxes, text and sound, Grimes’s re-interpretation of the Natural History Museum’s collections and Victorian museum practice becomes a re-collection, a poetic transformation activating memory and re-awakening the ‘Dead Zoo’. In the upper balcony of the National Museum, Grimes installs a series of large-scale animal portraits, the Taxum Totem series. The exhibition at the Gallery of Photography goes behind the scenes of the Museum, presenting images and drawings from off-site storage areas, research archives, imaginary do-it-yourself taxidermy guides, and ironic ways of telling the good from the bad curator.

The websites don’t explain the title, but a quick search reveals that this is a mnemonic phrase to remember the hierarchic order of ranks of taxa in the living world (Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).

Some of us met Karl for lunch here at Medical Museion in January 2005 just before he went to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to do the photo exhibiton “Vial Memory”. I’m afraid I wasn’t that wild with his photos, and his new work (as judged from the websites) again leaves me with somewhat ambiguous feelings. For example, here’s a stuffed striped animal (zebra) re-curated together with a green mop cleaning set against a background of early 20C museum showcases:

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Calum Storrie on Medical Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

Calum Storrie, who participated in the workshop “Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context” here in Copenhagen three weeks ago, has just sent the following post-workshop responses to our future plans for Medical Museion as they were presented during a tour around the exhibitions and storage facilities (I have added the links):


I wanted to clarify some things that were implied in my last remarks at the Workshop but were not explicit. I hope you will excuse that these points have something of the feeling of a manifesto.

Exploit the spatial
The Museion is a unique site. Not only are there remarkable (even extra-ordinary) interior spaces that resonate with the particular subject matter of the Museion, but there are also connections beyond the building itself into the surrounding area. The Museion is part of a complex of medical and other buildings that shadow and reflect the collection. The building has a connection to the street through its own exterior space – the courtyard. This potential for porosity is a resource to be put to use.

Exploit the object
Bio-medicine sometimes has a physical (and visual) manifestation through product or, more usually, as part of the process. Make the most of what exists.

An exhibition can be both museum and theatre
It is really important to recognize the importance of the static display. But this can co-exist with time based performance and ‘theatre’. See also “Use magic”.

Exploit the poetic
There are processes within bio-medicine that, though invisible, are transformative. They change understanding or matter. Herwig and Paulo’s film setting04_06 worked this trick.

Use magic
There is a term in English that has a relationship to trompe l’oeil. It is ‘sleight of hand’ (and in French léger de main). See also “An exhibition can be both museum and theatre”.

Expand into the street
Use the immediate surroundings of the street. These are the spaces that potential visitors pass through on their way to the Museion.

Expand beyond the institution. Become a parasite
Make temporary connections to parallel institutions in Copenhagen and beyond.

Use all the tools of display

  • Juxtaposition
  • Accumulation
  • Repetition
  • Reflection
  • Disorientation
  • Orientation
  • The found object
  • Absurdity (note)
  • The vitrine
  • The plinth
  • The frame
  • The shrine
  • Archaeology
  • Miniaturisation

Embrace Melancholy

Exploit both disruption and continuity
Bio-medicine has a distant past as well as a recent past, a present and a future.

Note: I never thought I would quote Donald Rumsfeld:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.


Thanks Calum! Those who want to know more about Calum’s museological ideas, see The Delirious Museum, 2005

What is art work in a medical museum exhibition?

By Biomedicine in museums

In an earlier post I mentioned Annebeth Meldal’s still life of surgical remains in the new hospital exhibiton at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology (NTM), Oslo.

Another interesting way of displaying hospital remains is this trolley with used hospital instruments thrown out by the medicotechnical department at the Norwegian National Hospital in week 45, 2006:



But unlike Annebeth Meldal’s installation, the trolley and its contents is not identified as an art work — this sign only tells us about the factual content in the trolley (in Norwegian):

So what are the criteria for labelling the first display as art, and the other as a dull trolley with cassated instruments?

Scholarly medical history podcasts

By Biomedicine in museums

Michael MacKay (a PhD candidate at the University of York, UK) has started a website with a collection of podcasts in which historians of medicine and veterinary medical historians read scholarly papers. The selection of topics is so far limited, and when I listened this morning the quality was not that very good (the sound level of the embedded PodBean MP3 player was very low and couldn’t be regulated).

But these beginner’s problems aside, this is a promising initiative and one could imagine a future huge archive of medical history seminar and session papers distributed through the podcast medium. After all, why produce a 2×10 hour carbon footprint in order to attend a transatlantic conference with historians of medicine in a ghastly Marriott hotel when you can sit comfortably in your armchair and listen to the world’s accumulating scholarship?

Exploring and curating medical objects with the sense of touch

By Biomedicine in museums

Jan Eric Olsén and I have just given a presentation in the Artefacts XII meeting held at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo, Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 September. Here’s the introduction to our presentation (links added):

This is not a conference paper in the traditional sense — but rather a practical illustration of less conventional approaches to object exploration.

But before we turn to the illustration exercise — for which we will then need a couple of volonteers — we will shortly explain the background for this presentation.

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