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Monthly Archives

May 2008

Exhibition on 20th century anaesthesiology and intensive care at the Euroanaesthesia 2008 meeting

By Biomedicine in museums

A couple of months ago the Danish Society for Anaesthesiology and Intensive Medicine asked Medical Museion if we were interested in making a small exhibition about the history of Danish anaesthesiology and intensive care in connection with the fourth Annual Meeting of the European Society of Anaesthesiology (Euroanaesthesia 2008) in Copenhagen.

With 5000 potential exhibition visitors in mind, we said yes, of course! So during the last two months Søren Bak-Jensen and Nicole Rehné have worked hard planning the exhibition and setting it up. The European society has supported us with ~10.000 euros, and we have received valuable help from specialists and a few companies (see credits below).

And today it opened in the west end of the main hall of the Bella Center. An 80 sq.m. display area with a Dräger iron lung from 1952 as the iconic object of modern intensive care placed in the middle:


encircled by showcases that display a number of exquisite artefacts from our collections, including, for example, Ruben resuscitators and a curare flask from the turn of the last century. We have also borrowed some objects from medicotechnical companies Radiometer, AMBU and an evocative movie from Klinisk Film.


Here are some more pictures from first couple of hours when the meeting participants streamed into the huge congress building:


And finally the credits:

Special thanks to Dr. Hans Kirkegaard, Chairman of the Danish Society for Anaesthesiology and Intensive Medicine and a specialist on curare, who took the initative in the first place — here photographed while he is inspecting one of the showcases:

The exhibition closes on Tuesday.

No doubt, this kind of exhibitions is a great opportunity to foster contacts between the medical profession, the medicotechnical industry, medical historians and medical ethnographers. We’ll soon be back with more pictures and reflections on this particular kind of extra-mural medical historical object exhibitions.

The age of anxiety: A history of America’s turbulent affair with tranquilizers

By Biomedicine in museums

On Friday 13 June, Andrea Tone, Canada Research Chair in the Social History of Medicine at McGill, will give a talk at Medical Museion about her new book ’The age of anxiety: A history of America’s turbulent affair with tranquilizers’ (forthcoming on Basic Books). Among her earlier books are Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America and Medicating Modern America: Prescription Drugs in History (with Elizabeth Siegel Watkins). Now she’s working on the history of post-WWII psychopharmacology, which is one of our active research areas here at Medical Museion — see more about Jesper Vaczy Kragh’s research project here.

The meeting, which begins at 2pm, is co-organised by Jesper and the Danish Society for Psychosocial Medicine (Rikke Krølner). Please pre-register at

Publications from the 'Biomedicine on Display' project, 2005-2008

By Biomedicine in museums

At last, we have put together a list of books, articles and unpublished PhD-theses with relation to the ‘Biomedicine on Display’-project published between 2005 and 2008. Unfortunately, very few of these publications are yet available online. If you want a copy of any of these, contact the author.

Only publications with relation to the BoD-project are listed. For full publication lists for each author, see here.

The history of personalized medicine

By Biomedicine in museums

Historians of contemporary biomedicine are well advised to listen when leading scientists and well-placed science administrators air their views on interesting trends in the field. When Francis Collins announced yesterday that he will step down as head of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, he also said that he is planning to write a book on the regulatory and scientific issues involved in personalized medicine. Because, in Collins’s view, this is “a fundamental shift in medical care”. An excellent topic for a research project in contemporary history — but a damned difficult one for an exhibition. 

Cybernetic heritage?

By Biomedicine in museums

Suggestive calls for papers to interesting seminars and conferences appear in the inbox almost daily. Usually I understand what these messages mean, but sometimes I’m in doubt. For example, I just received one for “Thinking and Making Connections: Cybernetic Heritage in the Social and Human Sciences and Beyond”, a conference to be held at Södertörn University College in Sweden, 10-11 November.

‘Cybernetic heritage’ — sounds good, but what is it? Didn’t find any info on the department’s website, then tried to google it (25 hits today, 26 tomorrow :-), but didn’t become wiser. Is it about the acquisition and preservation of robots in museums? Or the lingering-on of old cybernetic ideas in the social sciences and humanities? Both could be exciting — but maybe the organisers mean something entirely different? 

The aesthetics of biomedical desktop images is a much under-researched area of visual culture studies.

By Biomedicine in museums

Attila Chordash (Pimmreminds us that we spend many hundreds of hours a year looking at desktop background images. Maybe they are among the most looked-at images in our lives. What are scientists’ preferred desktop background images? I know some people who choose awesome images from the Hubble telescope, while others stare at scary creatures from the bottom of the ocean. Pimm prefers this one:

from Bonnet et al., “A Mitochondria-K+ Channel Axis Is Suppressed in Cancer and Its Normalization Promotes Apoptosis and Inhibits Cancer Growth”, Cancer Cell 11 (1), 37-51, 2007 (Figure 1. A Reversible Metabolic-Electrical Remodeling in Cancer Contributes to Resistance to Apoptosis and Reveals Several Potential Therapeutic Target).

Well, it reminds me about the sad fact that the aesthetics of desktop images is so far a much under-researched area of visual culture studies 🙂

Meeting our Advisory Board

By Biomedicine in museums

Yesterday, we had a whole-day meeting with our new advisory board, appointed by the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences for a three-year period. After a short resumé of our Annual Report for 2007 (which will be on-line soon) the ten Board members engaged in a very lively discussion about our work — from research and teaching to acquisitions and temporary exhibitions. Lots of constructive feedback! In the afternoon we proceeded with the future plans, some of which will later also be presented on this blog.

It’s pretty exhausting to be scrutinised for six hours by a group of ten highly qualified research scholars and museum directors. But it is also an extremely useful exercise. First, the production of a detailed annual report has given us a unique chance to pause for a moment and recapitulate our activities. Second, it’s great to hear a group of experienced people evaluate your work (especially when they are mainly positive :-). And third, the discussion around the table generated a lot of insights which we wouldn’t have been able to produce on our own. In fact, several members of the Board thought that, in the course of the day, the meeting developed from an evaluation event into a mutually inspiring seminar. 

The aims of the Board are:

  • to evaluate Medical Museion’s activities, i.e., research, teaching, collection management, acquisitions, exhibitions, and other public outreach initiatives, in the preceeding year
  • to evaluate the present and possible future status of Medical Museion in relation to the long-term strategy for the University of Copenhagen and the development of similar institutions internationally
  • to discuss Medical Museion’s vision for the forthcoming years and provide inspiration for long-term planning
  • to advice the Director of Medical Museion with respect to the realisation of these plans.
  • to advice the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences with respect to the overall future development of Medical Museion.

The members of the Board are: Gert Almind, Director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation (chair); Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, London; Bodil Busk Laursen, Director of the Danish Museum of Art & Design, Copenhagen (vice-chair); Liselotte Højgaard, Head of the Department of Clinical Physiology and Nuclear Medicine & PET and Cyclotron Unit, Danish National Hospital, Copenhagen; Svante Lindqvist, Director of Nobel Museum, Stockholm; Sharon MacDonald, Professor at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester; Robert Martensen, Director of the Office of NIH History, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; John Pickstone, Wellcome Research Professor at the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester; Thomas Schnalke, Director of Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité, Berlin; and Cornelia Weber, General Manager of the Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik, Humboldt Universität, Berlin.

And we were: Bente, Camilla, Søren, Ion and myself

Ken Arnold is instructed in the art of sword-opening a Cremant bottle right before the Board dinner on Sunday 25 May.

Heritage and wellbeing

By Biomedicine in museums

The new Centre for Museums, Heritage & Material Culture at University College London is organising an afternoon workshop on Wednesday 25 June 2-5pm on the theme “Heritage and Wellbeing”. The purpose of this workshop is to bridge the relevant work of

academics in various disciplines, medical professionals, researchers, museum, library and archive workers, and arts curators by exploring common themes such as touch and object handling, ethnographies and institutions of care, arts in health, and the histories of hospitals and health. The key focus of the workshop is to define research themes and identify practice-led projects, in order to develop appropriate methodologies and to create a critical framework for assessing wellbeing in the context of heritage.

Attendence is free, but space is limited so advance registration is necessary — write to Sonjel Vreeland Read more about the workshop here.

Travelling exhibitions and the experience economy

By Biomedicine in museums

With a background in the history of 20th century life sciences, I didn’t know much about museums when I took this job. But I’m gradually learning the tricks of the trade and must admit that almost everything about museums is quite fascinating, especially acquisitioning becuse it’s so close to research.

I’m much more ignorant about the administrative and economic aspects. But there is one thing about the economics of museums that has caught my interest lately, namely the way museums are entangled in the experience economy.

For example, take the travelling exhibition “Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics” which was developed in 2005-2006 by the Field Museum in Chicago and which opens today on its fourth and last tour stop at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Judged from the website this is a small and fairly conventional exhibit—it includes original notes, correspondences and a few artifacts from Mendel’s scientific work in the Brno abbey, they have also included some genetic art works, and a few interactives (“Try your hand at comparing the DNA of a flamingo with those of other birds to see how they’re related”), and so forth. Nice, but apparently not earth-shattering.

But the economic side is fascinating: in addition to the usual in-house operation costs, the Academy pays for transportation and insurance (which can easily be 25.000 USD or more). And on top of this, they pay for renting the exhibition, in this case 85.000 USD for 3 months.

So what’s in it for the Field Museum? Well, this particular exhibition has only been booked by four other museums, which means that they only earn a total of 340.000 USD by shipping it around the US (after having shown it to their own Chicago audience, of course). This probably equals what it cost them to develop the show in the first place, so “Gregor Mendel” is presumably a break-even.

But some of Field Museum’s other exhibitions are blockbusters. The dinosaur show “A T. rex named Sue”, developed in 1999-2000, has been to about 50 museums around the world (in two parallell copies; see tour overview here). They don’t tell the cost of renting it on the website. But if a Mendel exhibit costs 85.000 USD, you can imagine the prize of a dino show. Probably this returns a total income around 5-10 mill. USD for the Field Museum, well above their costs for developing it in the first place.

The icing on this particular dino show experience economy cake is that McDonald’s (yes, the hamburgers!) “works closely with each venue to create and support a strong local campaign of advertising, marketing, in-store promotions, and media relations to drive museum attendance” (quote from here).

Admittedly, as a state-employed historian of science/medicine I’ve so far been quite naïve about the larger economic aspects of museums of our kind. Okay, it’s one thing to join forces with a global hamburger chain to sell tickets to plastic casts of 70 mill. yr old dinosaur skeletons in local natural history museums all over the globe; and it’s another thing to co-operate with a national anaesthesiological society to make 50 year old resuscitating balloons engaging to an international anaesthesiological congress, as we are doing right now (see upcoming post in a few days). Apparently two very different museum worlds. Yet, we operate, in principle, on the same experience economical market place.

Food for thought, although I’m not quite sure where this is heading. Perhaps someone can help me to develop these thoughts further?

Ego-documents in biomedicine

By Biomedicine in museums

I’ve earlier (“The presentation of self in everyday laboratory web life”) written about my fascination with the new ways in which biomedical researchers present themselves on their websites and blogs. The public face of bioscience and biotech is, for better or for worse, becoming increasingly egocentric and self-presentational. So I was intrigued when I read about the ESF funded exploratory workshop on Ego-documents which my friend Michael H. is attending right now:

Everywhere in Europe, scientific teams or scholars are working on egodocuments. Egodocuments are a specific kind of texts produced by ordinaries people from the end of the Middle Age including memoirs, autobiographies, diaries and other forms of private journals. These fascinating documents could be used in a great number of topics like the history of the self, the history of the family or the history of the European culture and some of these teams are even currently building extensive censuses of all egodocuments kept in archives or libraries. Participants will search the ways to coordinate these efforts at an European scale, to share experience about the use of these texts, to extend the censuses to all the European countries, and to develop common scientific approaches to these texts.

It would have been fun to attend! (Michael sometimes keeps interesting things to himself 🙂 Because the study of late medieval and early modern ego-documents could in fact teach us something about how to study 21st century ego-webpages. But it could also be a total flop, of course. More than ten years ago, I participated in a conference on the epistolary genre with presentations about all kinds of letter-writing, from Mesopotamian clay tablet letters via Roman correspondences to German Romantic epistles. My contribution about letter-writing among mid-20th century scientists was totally ignored, however – the mere fact that I spoke about letters between scientists turned my more authentic humanities colleagues (philologists and literary historians) off.

Such attitudes have certainly changed (the growing interest for the Society for Science, Literature and Arts is an indication of this). For example, a variety of poststructuralist approaches have informed humanistic studies of science. But the tradition of classical humanistic approaches could also be a rich source for understanding social and cultural phenomena in contemporary biomedicine. I mean, even classical philology could generate new and interesting analytical perspectives and research topics.