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Monthly Archives

April 2008

REAL instruments, please, not just images!

By Biomedicine in museums

Each month I’m eagerly waiting for my copy of The Scientist to appear in my mail box, because the magazine runs a page on an idea, invention or object that has been significant in the history of 20C life sciences (a kind of nostalgia page for scientists — very sweet). In the last issue staff writer Bob Grant presents an EL307 microplate reader from BioTek Instruments produced around 1981, a toaster-size thing that was sold in about 450 units at $3,900 a piece in the early 1980s:

Nice, but also somewhat disappointing. Because Bob Grant apparently hasn’t seen one of this beauties IRL, only an image taken from a 1984-85 BioTek pamphlet. If The Scientist’s curatorial column is to be taken seriously, staff writers should have their hands on some real stuff, not just pamphlete images.

Medical Museion on Swedish TV – Part 4

By Biomedicine in museums

The fourth (and final) five-minute episode from Medical Museion on the history of medicine made by a crew from Swedish TV was sent tonight. See it here (run the clip 7’40” into the programme).

For the first episode in the series, see here (run the ‘tape’ forward until about 8’40”); for the second episode, se here (6’30” into the programme); and for third see here (22’50” into the programme).

That was it. A whole day of hard work — and the result is twenty minutes in four snippets. On the other hand, it’s more efficient than writing a book, where you spend three weeks reading sources in the archive, producing one single page of manuscript.

NIH is looking for a historian of post-WWII biomedicine

By Biomedicine in museums

Here’s an interesting job opportunity for anyone devoted to the history of contemporary biomedicine. The Office of NIH History at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. is looking for a historian to study the history of post-WWII biomedicine at NIH or supported by the NIH (this is not a severe restriction, since the NIH has financed a large portion of the significant post-WWII biomedical research efforts). The job also involves developing the Office’s virtual presence, including its website. It’s a <5 years position, and non-U.S. citizens are also welcome to apply. Potential applicants with a background in history, science studies, sociology/anthropology of medicine etc. are encouraged to contact the head of the Office of NIH History, Dr. Robert Martensen (, to discuss the position prior to submitting their proposal. Review of applications will begin 30th June 2008.

A medical history museum turned art gallery

By Biomedicine in museums

The other day I went to take a look at the Musée d’Historie de la Médecine, located on the second floor of the magnificent Université René Descartes (Paris 5) headquarter building in rue de l’École de Médecine.


I had expected yet another traditional, dull and didactical display of medical history, but got a pleasant surprise—a medical history museum in the disguise of an art gallery!

Compared to other European medical history collections, this one (founded in 1795 and moved to the present room in 1954) is not particularly big. But it is quite representative, especially on the surgical instrument side, covering the long range from ancient Egypt and classical Antiquity to the early 20th century. And there are several quite exquisite objects—e.g., a late 18th century wooden anatomical mannequin, a late 19th century carbolic acid desinfection chamber, one of Jean-Antonin Désormeaux’s pioneering endoscopes, Étienne-Jules Marey’s portable polygraph, and so on and so forth (some of the artefacts can be seen on the collection page; but don’t expect too much, because web presentation is not this museum’s strongest side :-).

The objects are neatly displayed in glass showcases along the walls and in a few decoratively placed transparent podiums on the floor.


There are no explanatory posters, wall texts or images that take the attention away from the artefacts themselves—just a few large oil portraits and busts of French medical doctors. And like in an art museum, the discrete small-sized labels just give the bare necessities (in French only, of course :-).

The impression of classic art gallery is enhanced by the huge room, lit from above by a diffuse natural light from the glass ceiling:

Why has this beautiful little museum escaped the wave of didacticism and contextualism that has swept over most of the European and North-American medical history museum world in the last three-four decades?

One reason may be that it is hidden away on a side-street in the Paris Latin Quarter; another that the owners seem to be totally unware of what is gong on in the Anglophone world. But there is also a more probable explanation: the present display is the oeuvre of an art curator, viz., the current head of the collection, Mme Marie-Véronique Clin-Meyer, who was trained at the Musée du Louvre in the 1970s and later directed the Maison Jeanne d’Arc in Orléans.

Whatever the reason—this is a great place which is worth a detour if you happen to be in Paris! Hopefully, the Université René Descartes is not entertaining the idea of ‘modernizing’ this gem of a medical pre-20th century art gallery.

Mediation and immediacy: Displaying nano surfaces in a space of stone surfaces

By Biomedicine in museums

The old réfectoire at the Les Cordeliers campus of University of Paris 6 has been used for a variety of activities in the last centuries—housing, among other tings, a print shop for Banque de France, the workshop of the painter Jean-Baptiste Regnault, and Guillaume Dupuytren’s museum of pathological anatomy (between 1835 and 1939). Now owned by the City of Paris the réfectoire building has been transformed into an information center for science and culture.

Between 10 April and 10 May they are showing the Italian photographer Lucia Covi’s exhibition ‘Blow-up: images du nanomonde’ (for a review of the show in Italy in 2006, see here):

Set in an ordinary exhibition room these pictures would have looked much more ordinary. But the huge room is an excellent sensuous contrast to the images of the invisible world at the nanoscale. The old, raw and tactile stone walls provide a fitting frame of immediacy and presence for the visitor’s visually mediated experience of the raw and non-tactile nanosurfaces:

And, finally, one of the blow-ups:

Another meeting on university museums

By Biomedicine in museums

One month after the UMAC (University Museums and Collections) meeting in Manchester 16-20 September—held on the theme ‘University museums and the community’ (announced here)—there is another meeting of university museums, viz., the Universeum Network Meeting in Krakow, 16-18 October 2008 on the theme ‘University museums: diversity or/and uniformity? Creating a university museum’s image’ (website here).

Both themes sound relevant, but why are there two university museum meetings just one month apart? (There may be organisational conflicts involved, which I’m not aware of). Unfortunately, I cannot attend any of them—but if someone goes, please don’t hesitate to write a review in the comment field below.

Things, Tools and Touch: Exploring New Materialisms in Science, Technology and Medicine Studies

By Biomedicine in museums

Last year, Medical Museion co-organised a reading group titled “Towards a New Materialism? Exploring Artifactuality and Material Culture in History of Science, Technology and Medicine” together with the History of Technology Division at the Danish Technical University and the Research Policy Institute in Lund — and with Mats Fridlund (on-and-off guest researcher here at Medical Museion) as the main organiser and driving force. The reading group was a great success with some 10 PhD-students following it.

Now Mats is exporting the concept to his new provisional alma mater, the University of Aarhus, with a reading group along the same lines, titled “Things, Tools and Touch: Exploring New Materialisms in Science, Technology and Medicine Studies”. (First brown bag seminar after the intro seminar on 30 April, will be given by our own Adam Bencard, titled “Affects and Materiality” on 14 May.) Great initiative!