Skip to main content
Monthly Archives

June 2008

Why do museums want to bring art and science together? — part 2

By Biomedicine in museums

Why has art and aesthetics then entered the science, technology and medicine (STM) museum sector? This was not the case 15 or 20 years ago. What has happened in the last two decades?

I will not attempt to give any historical, sociological or political explanations for the flow of art and aesthetics into STM-museums; that’s a topic for a serious research project and even a book. Instead I will take on a more preliminary task: I will try to reconstruct a handfull of ideal-typical rationalities for why STM-museum curators around the world are engaged in bringing art and the biomedical sciences together.

I hasten to add that I haven’t done any fieldwork, or asked curators to fill in any questionaires. The reconstructions that follow in the next couple of posts are based primarily on websites and occasional discussions, and especially on my own experiences as the director of Medical Museion in Copenhagen.

Sizewise, Medical Museion is somewhere between the Jurassic midgets and the contemporary Power giants. We are placed in an old 18th century palace-looking building (the former Royal Academy of Surgeons) in the Copenhagen inner city area, with approx 4000 square meters of storage, exhibition and office space. Our biggest asset, besides the building, is a huge collection of medicotechnical artefacts, wet specimens and hard human remains — actually one of the biggest collections in northern Europe — ranging from 18th century medical curiosities to 20th century everyday medical care objects. We believe we have a total of around 200.000 objects plus another 60.000 images.

Like many other similar medium-size traditional medical history museums around the world, our museum was – until recently, when it was still called the Medical History Museum at the University of Copenhagen – content with taking care of and displaying the old treasures. Some medical history museums are in fact still quite satisfied with such a role; they are not interested in becoming engaged with the rapidly changing biomedical landscape, i.e, all these revolutionary things that are happening on the interface between postgenomic cell biology, pharma production, medical technology, biotech industry and computer science. It’s a messy world, so I think it’s perfectly legitimate (and probably even quite wise) to stay away from it.

But we decided to jump on the life science bandwagon, to engage with the hurly-burly of the contemporary life science world. So in the last four-five years we have turned both our research efforts, our acquisitions of new artefacts, and our temporary exhibitions towards investigating and displaying contemporary developments in the biomedical field. And a few years ago, a private Danish research foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, decided that this approach was worthwhile supporting.

So now we are in the midst of a combined research and curatorial project called ‘Biomedicine on Display’. I say ‘combined’, because we seek to integrate research, the acquisitions of the material and visual culture of biomedicine, and the creation of exhibitions. And we do indeed have a great interest in bringing art, aesthetics and medicine together.

So in a sense, we are not just a medical history museum anymore, but a medical museum. That’s one of the reasons we changed our name to Medical Museion. So, which were our reasons for going into art and aesthetics?
[I’ll be back tomorrow or the day after tomorrow].

Why do museums want to bring art and science together?

By Biomedicine in museums

Museums are a significant part of the global science learning and experience economy. There are many hundreds, maybe thousands, of science, technology and medical museums and science centers around the world. The Association of Science-Technology Centers presently lists 447 institutions, but they don’t list small, regional and local museums.

This STM-sector of the museum industry (let’s forget about science centers) spans everything from small, regional, amateur-driven collections and displays run by retired scientists, engineers and medical doctors to large professional-driven institutions supported by state grants and having hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of visitors each year—like the Science Museum in London, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, just to mention three big STM-museums on three different continents, who are among the significant actors in the global cultural and experience economy.

Whether they work on a small scale or as large operations, many STM-museums nowadays are involved in bringing art and science (art and technology, art and medicine) together. This is true both for the very small, queer and curiousities-filled ones, like my personal favourite, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. It’s true for the middle-sized ones, like the Wellcome Collection in London which is deliberately exploring the art-life science connection. And it’s true for the Big Ones, like Cité des sciences et de l’industrie in Paris which has even published a guide to their own artworks.

Why then has art and aesthetics entered the STM-museum sector? In a number of posts over the next couple of days I will discuss five possible reasons why museums are increasingly bringing art and science together.

These posts are parts of a paper I gave at the session “Rethinking Representational Practices in Contemporary Art and Modern Life Sciences” organised by Ingeborg Reichle for the Society for Literature, Science and Art (SLSA) meeting in Berlin a couple of weeks ago under the title “Five (good and bad) reasons why a medical museum director wants to bring art and science together”.

The other speakers in the session were Suzanne Anker (New York) and Rob Zwijnenberg (Leiden). Above are Rob, Susanne and Ingeborg before we started the session.
[to be followed]

Why do you read Biomedicine on Display? And how can we make it better?

By Biomedicine in museums

Inspired by Material World we thought we would like to know who our readers are. We know you are dispersed all over the world — from Korea to Chile, from Alaska to South Africa. Most of you come from Denmark, United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States, fewer reside in Colombia, Norway and Australia. Why do you read this blog on and off? What do you think of it? And how can we make it better? Please write to us in the comment field below.

Best wishes,

The Biomedicine on Display group

Manufactured animals in history — discourses of health and welfare

By Biomedicine in museums

Veterinary history used to be one of these backward corners of the historical specialities occupied by happy amateurs (read: retired veterinarians). Not so much anymore. Younger professional generations are mobilising current historiographical tools to understand the history of domesticated animals and their health problems, including their relations with humans. And there’s of course also bioethical problems involved.  

As a token of this new interest the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) in Manchester is organising a one-day workshop on ‘The Health and Welfare of the Manufactured Animal’ together with the Veterinary History Society on Friday 19 September. “By focussing on the differing ways in which animal ‘needs’ have been constructed and understood over time, with particular emphasis upon discourses of ‘health’ and ‘welfare'”, says the organiser, Rob Kirk:

the workshop seeks to explore how animals have been determined by, whilst simultaneously determining, the environments, contexts, knowledge claims, and wider understandings within which they have existed in specific places and times. Papers draw upon a variety of historical and sociological approaches and are organised by three topographic themes: the laboratory, the farm, and the home. Our aim is to determine the extent to which historians can contribute to wider debates that see animals as co-constituents of the relationships within which they live. In so doing we seek to explore how far it is possible to move beyond the representation of animals as passive products of human material and intellectual processes.

Tentative speakers include:

  • Stephanie Eichberg (Durham University), “Pets and Scientific Subjects”: Considering the animal body in different environments
  • Rob Kirk (CHSTM, University of Manchester), “Living Spaces: Environment and welfare in the lives of laboratory animals”
  • Gail Davies (UCL), “Making Mice, Making Space: Tracing the geographies of transgenic mice welfare”
  • Richie Nimmo (University of Aberdeen), “Animal Mediations: Cows as contingent actors, co-producers and machines in the early 20th century British dairy industry”
  • Abigail Woods (Imperial College London). “‘No room for passengers!’: The construction of the fertile cow, 1930-50
  • Karen Sayer (Leeds Trinity & All Saints) “TBC”
  • Andrew Gardiner (University of Edinburgh). “How small animals made their medicine”
  • Mick Worboys and Neil Pemberton (CHSTM, University of Manchester), “Breeding, Feeding, Leading: Making the modern dog in Britain, 1870-1910”

And because this is a conference organised for intellectual purposes, there is no registration fee! 

For further info, contact Rob Kirk at or visit the website:

The Comfort of Things — an inquiry into unique singularities outside social notions of identity

By Biomedicine in museums

I haven’t read Daniel Miller‘s recently published The Comfort of Things (Polity Press, 2008) yet, but his own presentation of the book in today’s Material World promises an extra-ordinary interesting reading experience for anyone interested in the use of ‘particulars’ (unique, anecdotal, idiosyncratic, singular, curious, etc. things) in museum practice.

The Comfort of Things is composed of thirty ‘portraits’ of individuals and households from a single street in London. Miller — who is professor of material culture at UCL — suggests that there is a “so far unexplored potential legacy of anthropological perspectives on the world” which emerges “if we dissolve away our usual dualism between the individual and some larger category of society or culture”.

The ‘portrayed’ households failed “to fit the kinds of categories that are used to subsume individuals in social science”. In some respects they could be classified as ‘working class’ or ,’Brazilian’ or ‘gay’ etc., but “none of these categories really capture what is richest about our encounters with them”. By using a random London street as his unit of inquiry, Miller had to describe whoever opened the door to their homes — thus they were not chosen “as tokens of social science notions of identity”.

Cannot wait to get my hands on it before summer laziness takes over.

The near-haptic quality of a heart animation

By Biomedicine in museums

We have repeatedly come back to the art of medical animation on this blog. Although in principle we are more interested in animation of invisible biomedical microstructures, animations of classical macroanatomical structures are still a source of awe and fascination, especially when they are well-done. See, for example, this beautiful animation of a human heart:

One thing is that it has an almost haptic quality — another bonus feature is that you can move an interface slider to seamlessly disclose the working of the valves beneath the increasingly transparent muscular ‘glass’ surface. Nifty! Imagine an exhibition room in which a real, preserved heart was shown with this animation in the background. (I don’t think they used any of these in the Wellcome Collection’s Heart-exhbition?).

The interactive heart is produced by Hybrid Medical Animation, a small Minneapolis-based company which specialises in creative medical and scientific imaging. And they don’t restrict their productions to macroanatomy; for example, they have also done instruction movies about molecular targeting, like the one to the right.

See more examples here.

(thanks to today’s Medgadget for the tip)

Two postdoc positions in science and technology studies in Oxford

By Biomedicine in museums

The James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at the Saïd Business School , Universitry of Oxford, is announcing two research fellows in science and technology studies. The range of research topics includes (but is not limited to): biomedical innovation and society; cognitive enhancement; converging technologies; evidence and evidence-policy relations; governance of genetic technologies; science, technology and inequality; imaging and visualisation; law, property and inequality; mundane objects and ordinary technologies; neuromarketing; security and surveillance; sociology and ethnography of the social sciences; technology, mobility and urban geographies; technoscience and its publics; and visualisation in archaeology.

The fellows are expected to: identify potential new research topics and questions; critically evaluate existing literatures and perspectives bearing on these topics; devise research projects and identify likely funding sources; submit research proposals; undertake research and writing with a view to publication in leading academic journals; contribute directly and in support of all research, take an active part in research meetings and related activities; act as a source of information and advice to other members of the group on methodologies or procedures; present papers at conferences or public meetings; etc.

It’s probably difficult to do all these things equally well, but otherwise it sounds like the Perfect Postdoc Job for an STS-oriented PhD. Deadline for applications is 14 July and informal inquiries can be addressed to Steve Woolgar, Read more here.

Strategic research or a dash of anarchy

By Biomedicine in museums

Together with some one hundred other hopeful Danish university academics, Søren and I spent three hours today listening to representatives of the Danish Council for Strategic Research instructing us how to write better applications for so called ‘strategic’ research projects in co-operation with Danish small and middle-sized corporations. It’s all about getting funding for projects that will promote long-term Danish economic interests; all us gathered in the room will compete for about 100 mill. euros in the September phase-2 application round. The success rate after having passed the first application round is about 33-50%, so we were all eagerly listening!

And then (inspired by Derek) I went home to read last week’s issue of Nature, in which cell biologist Theo Wallimann from ETH in Zürich writes (“European research needs a dash of anarchy”, Nature, vol. 453, p. 850) that “almost every significant breakthrough in the history of science has come about by serendipity — not as a result of strategic planning or problem-oriented and directed research”. And he continues:

Science and innovation are chaotic, stochastic processes that cannot be governed and controlled by desk-bound planners and politicians, whatever their intentions. Good scientists are by definition anarchists, who don’t want to be managed by what Gottfried Schatz of Biocenter Basel calls ‘chronoclasts’ — people whose bureaucracy steals their research time and blunts their creative potential. Good science has an inherent potential for self-organization.

What a schizophrenic day! In the morning we had our minds focused on how to get a grip on some of this strategic research money. And then, a few hours later, Wallimann’s call for a dash of anarchy.

The first thing that comes to mind is Nietzsche’s distinction between slave and master mentality.

(occasioned by Derek Lowe’s post “Anarchy in the EU” in today’s In the Pipeline)

Neurodegenerative brain diseases on YouTube display — the formation of biocitizenship through the participatory web

By Biomedicine in museums

Participatory web media are increasingly being used for raising the medical scientific awareness of patients, caregivers and doctors (I guess this is the basic idea of ‘formation of biocitizenship’). Latest example is a video channel launched Monday by the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF in co-operation with YouTube:


with “the goal of promoting earlier diagnoses and getting more patients into research studies and clinical trials” (quote from the press release).

The UCSF people are also experimenting with two other forms of online communication. To the right you can see their widget with links to the YouTube channel and their own site.

They have also created a “Defeat Dementia”-group on Facebook.

Says the director of the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, Bruce Miller:

The YouTube channel and these other forms of online communications will enable us to engage a broad audience in the fight against these illnesses … One goal is to increase awareness about the earliest signs of some of the less well known diseases … If we can promote accurate diagnoses of patients, we can get them into clinical trials sooner

Looks like a very conscious strategic use of web media for the formation of medical scientific awareness. Expect to see much more of this kind from universities and research centers in the near future.