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February 2008

Is the current notion of 'things-that-talk' a revival of fetishism?

By Biomedicine in museums

In an earlier post I wondered about the current fashion of ’things-that-talk’-talk that has invaded some valleys of cultural studies. For example, at a forthcoming workshop in Vienna, the organisers invite the participants “mit den Dinge zu argumentieren und diskutieren” (to argue and discuss with the objects), and they hope that “die Dinge gleichsam selbst zu Wort kommen” (the things in themselves shall have their say).

This is not an isolated event. The theme of the next meeting of the German Ethnographical Society (Gesellschaft für Ethnografie), to be held in Berlin 21-22 November 2008, is “Die Sprache der Dinge — kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven auf die materielle Kultur” (The language of things — cultural scientific perspectives on the material culture). The organisers not only wish to highlight the language of things, they emphasise “die Wirkmächtigkeit der Dinge” (the action potential of things) and “ihre Kulturgenerierende Funktion” (their culture generating function):

Dinge … als Handlungsträger und Akteure … Vermittler und Übersetzer …  Produzenten von Bedeutungen, von sozialen Beziehungen und Praktiken, von Identitäten, Wertvorstellungen und Erinnerungen (things as carriers of action and actors … mediators and translators … producers of meaning, of social relations and practices, of identities, values and memories).

Accordingly, the propsed themes for the meeting include “Dinge als kontextspezifische Akteure in der Praxis” (things as context specific actors in practice) and “Dinge als Produzenten von Praxen, Bedeutungen und Identitäten” (things as producers of practices, meanings and identities). (All quotes are from Wednesday’s H-SOZ-U-KULT@H-NET.MSU.EDU; see also the conference website).

In other words, the German etnographers not only want to restate the importance of material objects (things) for the understanding of culture and society. They also suggest that things are speakers, actors, mediators, translators, and producers of all possible social and cultural meanings and relations, and so forth.

The new focus on things in cultural studies is exciting. But I cannot see why some scholars take the further step to endow things with the status of actors/mediators/translators/producers etc. I mean, after all, if you ask an ethnographer if he/she really believes that a milk container literally has a language, or that it acts (really acts), or translates, and so forth, then I guess few would suggest it really does. And yet, the conscious actor category somehow creeps into the scholarly terminology. Why?

I’ve just discussed the matter with my learned friend Michael, who suggests that it may be an expression of a latter-day fetishism, that is, a revival of the ‘primitive’ religious practice to attribute powers to inanimate objects, like stones or pieces of wood (“the veneration of objects believed to have magical or supernatural potency”; Britannica).

Sounds plausible at first. All kinds of fundamental religious thinking (and its backlash counterpart, devout atheism) is washing over us like a tsunami. But then again—fetishism is not one of these. There must be a better explanation for this wave of ‘things-that-talk’-talk.

Look out for Museum History Journal (first issue out)

By Biomedicine in museums

Left Coast Press is starting a new peer-review journal called Museum History Journal to explore “the history of museums, the museum profession, and the sociocultural context in which museums developed and operate”.


The editors (Hugh H. Genoways at U Nebraska and Mary Anne Andrei at U Virginia) will operate with an inclusive definition of ‘museum’, i.e., also “aquaria, zoos, botanical gardens, arboreta, historical societies and sites, architectural sites, archives, and planetariums”, and they are expecting contributions from a large variety of scholarly approaches, for example:

cultural and social histories that evaluate the impact of museums in the context of a particular time period; intellectual histories that emphasize museum philosophy; histories of museum-related professions; histories of museum exhibits and educational programs; histories of development, management, and use of collections; architectural histories; analyses of the contributions of significant museum figures; issues of professionalization of the field; comparative histories; critical institutional histories.

Museum History Journal will be published twice a year (also on-line). Here is the contents of the first issue.

Displaying gender constructions II

By Biomedicine in museums

A propos the earlier post about Ingar Palmlund’s seminar on gender constructions in drug advertisements to be held in London tomorrow:  Mike Rhode has just posted a comment with a link to three posters covers of pamphlets from the collections of the NMHM which illustrate the gender construction topic very nicely.

(Note added in private and not necessarily representing the institutional views of this blog: Danish readers may note the similarity between the features of the face on this poster cover:


and that of Birthe Rønn Hornbech, the new Danish Minister for Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs from the so called Liberal Party (not to be mixed up with ‘liberal’ in the American political sense). Even more remarkable—given the fact that this Danish politician constantly has to steer a narrow course between common decency and the xenophobia of the influential Danish People’s Party—is the text on the poster: ‘Lady, your anxiety is showing’!)

Added 27 Feb: Mike has also put the covers on his blog.

The virulence of material objects in the historiography of science

By Biomedicine in museums

It probably hasn’t escaped anyone that the really material (and not just talking-about-it material) culture of science has become a hot area.

For example, I just saw this message about the newly formed TRAFIK working group for cultural studies (’Kulturwissenschaft’) in Vienna which will hold its first meeting 16 May on ‘the virulence of material objects in the current historiography of knowledge’ (’Virulenz materieller Gegenstände in der aktuellen Historiographie des Wissens’).

The workshop format is pretty innovative too (and here is where the ‘really material’ comes in). Participants are invited to bring a small object (small enough to fit into a pack of cigarettes) which they believe ‘organises, infects, structures’ their own research. Each is expected to give a 5 min. presentation of it to inspire the discussion about the relations of the objects and the networks and worldviews formed by these things – and if possible to bring them in ‘intelligible / surprising / disturbing’ (‘einleuchtende / überraschende / verstörende’) connections with each other.

This is a great idea and a wonderful format for a workshop; and the venue—the WerkzeugH in Vienna—looks like the perfect place for this kind of discussion. My only caveat is the current ’things-that-talk’ jargon that informs the event. I don’t have any problems with discussing objects with other people, but I get slightly worried about the prospect of having to argue and discuss with the objects themselves (’mit den Dinge, zu argumentieren und diskutieren’). Or, as the organisers say, ’the things in themselves shall have their say’ (to let ’die Dinge gleichsam selbst zu Wort kommen’).

The idea of letting things have their say reminds me of Hobbes speaking to Calvin. Frankly, I haven’t heard any convincing argument for why ‘things-that-talk’-talk may be useful. But maybe I’ve missed some important metaphorical virulence here 🙂

Read more (in German) here (and thanks to my intellectual buddy Michael for the tip!)

Closed for internal meeting …

By Biomedicine in museums

Medical Museion and this blog is closed today (Monday) and tomorrow. We are going to a conference center 30 km north of Copenhagen for a two-day internal department/museum conference to discuss how we can improve the integration between our different activities (research, teaching, collecting, public outreach and exhibits). Here’s the venue:

the Magleås conference center, a perfect place for small (10-35 people) workshops.

Biomedicine on Omeka? Are we drawing closer to a blog-and-exhibition fusion genre?

By Biomedicine in museums

Should this blog change its name to ‘Biomedicine on Omeka’? Maybe not literally, but the newly released web-exhibition platform Omeka (a Swahili word meaning “to display goods or wares”) provides food for thought and imagination.


Omeka is developed by the George Mason University Center for History and New Media, whose Director, Dan Cohendescribes it as a “WordPress for your exhibits and collections”. The Omeka platform uses the same type of theme-switching and plugin architecture that is used by blog platforms like ours (WordPress), but it also includes features that are of special interest for museums, for example, the opportunity to build narrative exhibits with apparently easily changeable layouts. The plugin architecture will probably invite designers to add a host of new interesting functionalities. As Cohen says, “The Omeka team is eager to build a large and robust community of open-source developers around this suite of technologies”.

This apparently looks like an answer to our earlier prayers for a combined blog and exhibition platform! Yet the really hard case—adding blog qualities to physical exhibitions (see earlier discussion here)—seems to be a more distant goal. Is Omeka really a step towards a future blog-and-exhibition fusion genre? Or should we rather begin to think the other way around: in terms of blog features transformed to the physical exhibition medium?

Erik asks (in Swedish) how it comes that so many cool new software things these days get African or Pacific names?

A blog repository for bottled monsters — and medical curiosities

By Biomedicine in museums

I’ve just received an incoming link from a newly founded medical museum blog called ‘A Repository for Bottled Monsters‘, edited by Mike Rhode, chief archivist of the Otis Historical Archives which is one of collecting divisions of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in the northern suburbs of Washington DC:

The title emanates from one of NMHM’s former curator-pathologists who wished to avoid having the museum (then the Army Medical Museum) seen as “a repository for bottled monsters and medical curiosities”, emphasising instead its role as a serious institution for pathological consultations. (I guess the identity of being a bottled-monsters-and-medical-curiosities-museum is one that all classical medical museums are facing whether they like it or not; they can hate it or embrace it, but they cannot really escape it.)

The subtitle—‘an unofficial blog for the National Museum of Health and Medicine’—has its own interesting background. The location of the museum on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus (“Home of Warrior Care”) not only makes it difficult to access it physically (see earlier report here); US army regulations also restrict staff access to the internet so that Blogger and other sites (maybe ours too?) are blocked by the army servers. Thus Mike works on this unofficial NMHM blog during off-work hours (when he also edits ‘ComicsDC‘).

Good luck with ‘A Repository’! The first posts cover medical curiosities (and normalities) more than bottled monsters, which I think is just fine. I guess many more aspects of medical collectioning will show up in future posts. And hopefully many medical museums will follow.

Displaying gender constructions in contemporary drug advertisements

By Biomedicine in museums

If you are attending the ‘extreme collecting’ workshop at the British Museum next Thursday, you could consider coming to London one day earlier, Wednesday the 27th, to hear Ingar Palmlund present her research project ‘The Female Patient and the Male Doctor: Gender Construction in Drug Advertisements in Medical Journals, 1950-2000’. The seminar takes place at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, Euston Rd. 183, at 13.00. (And don’t forget to take a look at the Sleeping and Dreaming exhibition while you are in the house!)

Extreme collecting — acquiring ephemeral objects

By Biomedicine in museums

In continuation of our earlier (here and here) discussion about ephemeral biomedical objects, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to the workshop on ‘Scale, Size and the Ephemeral’ at British Museum, next Thursday, 28 February 2008, 1-6pm:

The wealth of models, miniatures and dioramas in museum collections provide collecting paradigms modelled on numismatics and library ephemera. At one level these seem to be forms of ‘easy collecting’, at another they represent best practice. Size and scale give rise to portability, control and management of objects but conversely, allow for compelling evidence of the limitations and fragmentary nature of the collecting process. Moreover, large objects have important expressive functions in terms of place and architectural context, as anchors for museums. Should outsize items, or ephemeral materials such as foodstuffs, plant pith, featherwork and paper ever be collected and stored? Related to this is the question of the natural decay of ephemeral objects. Three-dimensional laser scanning techniques, such as the one now installed at University College London, now have the capacity to record objects in minute detail, over time to document surface decay. Art museums struggle to conserve works of unstable materials; how should anthropology and other cultural museums enter debate around the questions of size and natural decay? This session will explore the conditions under which size, scale and sustainability matter in contemporary collecting.

Speakers include: Dr Victor Buchli (UCL), Paul Cornish (Senior Curator, Exhibits & Firearms, Imperial War Museum), Dr Tom Gretton (UCL), Professor André Gunthert (EHESS, Paris), Susan Lambert (Museum for Design in Plastic), and Calum Storrie (Exhibition Designer, author of ‘The Delirious Museum’). (See here for abstracts)

The workshop is the third in a series of four on ‘Extreme Collecting’ organised in cooperation between British Museum and the program for Teaching and Research Collections at University College London. The series explores collecting practices that challenge the bounds of normally acceptable practice and “apply a critical approach towards the rigidity of museums in maintaining essentially nineteenth century ideas of collecting and move towards identifying priorities for collection policies in UK museums which are inclusive of acquiring ‘difficult’ objects”.

By ‘difficult objects’ they mean, for example, things that “appear so mundane and mass-produced as to appear uninteresting”, or objects which “have physical characteristics—of ephemeral substance, size and scale—that make it impossible to acquire and exhibit or are prone to rapid decay”.

They are currently registering for the last two workshops in the series. Check their website for details and abstracts!

(thanks to Material World for the tip)