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November 2008

Impressions from Deutsches Museum (1)

By Biomedicine in museums

I’ve just spent three days at Deutsches Museum in Munich. Primarily to attend a conference about the relations between research and exhibitions in museums. But I also took the opportunity to see its famous public galleries.

In spite of its name, Deutsches Museum is not about kings or wars or politics etc. — things that so many national museums are obsessed with. In contrast to British Museum, which circles around the treasures acquired from the former Empire, Deutsches Museum focuses on the foundations of German prosperity, that is, its engineering culture. The ~40,000 square meters of exhibition space are filled with electrical generators, brewery equipment, agricultural machinery, cars and airplanes, printing presses, cameras, computers, and so forth.

The museum is one long reminder of the fact that it is materials and technologies rather than ideas and politics that are shaping modern life (for example, agricultural machinery is a major precondition for large-scale urbanisation). A couple of hours’ walk among the thousands of things, machines, gadgets and apparatuses in the galleries gives you a feeling of what has made the modern world go around.

Others apparently feel the same way: last Saturday, the museum was full of visitors, mainly grown-ups, even some young chic women in their twenties — in contrast to many other science and technology museum weekend audiences, which are dominated by young children with their parents.

From the point of view of current museological thinking, the museum as a whole is pretty conventional. The large and academically very competent curatorial staff of Deutsches Museum have done a formidable job in acquiring, preserving, describing and arranging a representative collection of the marvels of modern technology. With few exceptions, however, they don’t seem to have listened to the siren calls of New Museology. Even the newest galleries are more like updated version of the classical ones.

Personally, I’m quite fond of old-school museums with tons of systematically ordered things, like classical natural history museums with their amassment of butterflies on needles and stuffed birds from all over the world. Same here: the huge building in central Munich has gallery after gallery displaying one damned machine after the other, each acompanied by a short, precise, informative text. Ordning muss sein.

Some of this is utterly fascinating. The computer gallery is magnificent, packed with pre-computer age calculating machines, early mainframe computers, integrated circuits, and devices with chips — a must for computer history afficionadoses. Likewise, the new gallery on the history of photo and film technology (curated by Cornelia Kemp) with its central 20 meter long, double-sided glass cabinet with hundreds of still and movie cameras, from mid-19th century to the present, gives a fantastic snapshot (!) of the chronological development of camera devices.

Other parts of the museum are more problematic. The chemistry galleries, with their didactic interactive showcases where visitors are supposed to do ‘experiments’ by pressing buttons, are quite hopeless. (On the other hand, these showcases have a kind of retro quality that speaks in favour of keeping them as museum pieces in their own right — as examples of informal learning in the 1970s).

Yet, even this colossus of a classical history of technology museum has its innovative moments. I’ll be back with a few more reflections in the next couple of days.

Next European university museum meeting in Toulouse, June 2009

By Biomedicine in museums

As a university-owned museum we are attached to the European university heritage network, Universeum (not to be mixed up with the Universeum science center in Göteborg, Sweden), which was established in 2000, and which will hold its 10th annual meeting next year — at the Université Paul Sabatier, Toulouse (France), 11-13 June.

True to its general purpose, the network invites paper proposals devoted to university heritage in its broad sense, tangible and intangible, “namely the preservation, study, access and promotion of university collections, museums, archives, libraries, and buildings of historical and scientific significance”. So topics interest will include (but are not restricted to):

  • Enhancing and promoting our knowledge about European university museums, collections and archives: Although awareness towards university heritage is increasing, actual research into university heritage issues — such as distinct nature, history, partnerships, best practices and roles in contemporary society — is barely starting. Enhancing our knowledge about these issues is, however, paramount both to the public visibility of university heritage in Europe and to its recognition as relevant to contemporary universities and society in general. Recent research presenting discussions of these issues, including case-studies and projects from European universities are welcome.
  • Preserving and documenting contemporary science and humanities in universities: Preserving and documenting contemporary science poses new challenges for university museums, archives and others concerned. The amount of material that can be collected appears endless and tough decisions may often have to be made. Objects from contemporary science can often not be put on the shelf like material from earlier periods. Digital documentation is taking over paper files. What and how should we select and document objects and histories of contemporary science? How can we mobilise research and teaching contemporary heritage and present it in exhibitions and other outreach activities?
  • European projects to study and increase access to university heritage in the 21st century, as higher education systems tend to converge in terms of degrees, funding, management and strategies, the preservation of and access to university heritage will increasingly become an issue at European levels. This interest has already been suggested by the Recommendation of the Council of Europe on University Heritage (2005). What is the impact of this European interest on university heritage? How can we raise awareness of European institutions towards university heritage, its study and access? What are the opportunities to develop projects at an European level today?

Send 200 words proposals (in English) to Catherine Gadon ( before 31 March 2009, and include a short biography highlighting main research interests. Authors of accepted proposals will be notified by 15 April.

History of medicine PhD scholarships in London, 2009-2011

By Biomedicine in museums

The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London (UCL) have just announced a number of 3 year scholarships for their M.Phil./Ph.D. programme, beginning in September 2009.

The scholarships are open to students both from within and outside EU. You can get more info from the centre’s graduate tutor, Helga Satzinger,, or from Adam Wilkinson, And of course on the centre’s website. Information about UCL’s Graduate School can be found at

Applications forms must be submitted online with the UCL Graduate School here, not later than 12 January 2009. Interviews with shortlisted candidates in early February.

The journal Performance Research invites contributions to thematic issue about the stretching, rendering and formation of the decentred, displaced, denatured or amalgamated body

By Biomedicine in museums

The journal Performance Research is planning a thematic issue (vol. 14, issue 4, 2009) on “notions and practices that correlate with ideas on the … formation of bodies, their somatic dimensions and constitution”. Issue guest editors Ric Allsop and Phillip Warnell are looking for contributions along the following lines:

  • Guest/ host relationships; the possessed body – disguise and ventriloquism in performance; intimate distances or the distance of intimacy; implanted objects and technologically augmented functionality; ingestion and extraordinary forms of eating; psychic and physical fragmentation – the séance as a place of travel and channel: of departure, arrival, spectacle, transmission and reception between beings and worlds; archival extraction and mobilization (including re-enactments); the psychology of phantom and detached limb behaviour (beheadedness?); the aesthetics (and representation) of embodiment and its affects […]
  • Historical, medical, symbolic and ritual use, storage and preservation of organic material and its associated material culture (canopic jars, organ transporters); the symbolism and sacred role of body part removal: such as castration, removal of the tongue and eye; the camera as an external organ; visible supplements – the consideration of auras, halos, charisma etc; immaterial agencies and modes of contamination – radioactivity or viral forms […]
  • Spatial organisation and disputed territories (transplantation and bodily construction in horticulture and its forms, allotments, hybridisation); displacement and the ethics of place; aloneness and placelessness; the in-between, lacunae and production of space; post-colonial approaches to ideas and histories of plantation and the transplantation of cultures and peoples; temote presence and shared forms of perception; conceptual and geographic displacements of art works and institutions […]

Much of this could be pretty interesting for medical museum exhibition curators. Deadline for proposals are 26 January 2009. Contact guest editors on or Or visit Performance Research‘s website and their guidelines for submissions.

Conference give-aways as medical ephemera

By Biomedicine in museums

Øystein Horgmo (The Sterile Eye) reports from a medical conference that he attended the other day. How, instead of listening to yet another lecture on laparoscopy, he walked around the industrial exhibition area scooping up a variety of freebies.

“What is knowledge compared to all the free stuff I bagged from the pharmaceutical company stands?!”, he says. The foray resulted in an LED flashlight, a wireless PC mouse, two teddy mooses, a laser pointer, a magnetic clip, several notepads, some toothpaste, and the usual: chewing gum, small juice packages, mints, lip balm, key chains — and pens, pens, pens, and again pens.

From a museological point of view, Øystein has just established a new subcategory of medical artefacts, namely medical conference ephemera. Which, to my best knowledge, no museum so far has paid attention to. An inconspicuous but important part of the visual and material culture of conferences, together with name tags, conference bags, plastic coffee cups and cheap sandwiches. Of course, much of this ephemeral stuff is available at any kind of conference, but some items may be specific for medical conferences.

For earlier discussions about ephemera in medical museum collections and exhibitions, see posts on the ephemeral culture of biomedicine, on bioephemera vs. bio-curisosities and bio-anecdotes and on extreme collecting, plus the comments to these posts, especially Mike Rhode’s. And it’s always stimulating to visit Jessica Palmer’s Bioephemera, which specializes in displaying bio- and medical related ephemera online.

New journal for museum and collection scholars

By Biomedicine in museums

University Museums and Collections Journal is a new, peer-reviewed, on-line journal (ISSN 2071-7229) published by the International Committee for University Museums and Collections (UMAC; part of ICOM).

Editors are Sally MacDonald, University College London; Nathalie Nyst, Université Libre de Bruxelles; and Cornelia Weber, Humboldt University of Berlin. The journal website looks pretty raw at the moment, but it will probably improve soonish.

UMCJ is planned to appear at least once a year. Could become a useful publication outlet for medical museum scholars if it gets through the ERIH and different national ranking exercises.

Galaxy Zoo + Obama campaign = a medical heritage curatorial movement?

By Biomedicine in museums

For dyed-in-the-wool academics it can sometimes be hard to understand what it feels to be a science amateur. So last spring I decided to become a member of Galaxy Zoo, i.e., one among many thousands of enthusiastic astronomy amateurs who spend hours in front of their computer screens, classifying about 900.000 images, provided by a project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, of far-away galaxies.

The real astronomers (RA) have assured us that as a group we, the citizen scientists, are making some serious contributions; six scientific papers have been completed (I’m NOT a co-author :-); in addition, one of us, a school teacher in the Netherlands, once discovered a curious cosmological object which the RAs marvelled over for weeks.

Even though the Galaxy Zoo community is constantly appreciated and nursed by the professional team, classification work becomes a bit tedious after a while, because, even though decision making can be quite difficult sometimes, we only have four pigeon-holes to place the galaxy images in, viz., left spiral, right spiral, elliptic and merger.

So now Galaxy Zoo is moving into a new phase. Having proved that the amateurs do indeed match the professionals when it comes to classification skills, the RAs are now giving us a new task: to sort through the 250,000 brightest galaxies from the Galaxy Zoo sample. Instead of spending 1-20 seconds on each image, we will now be able to spend more quality time with each galaxy: “the chances of seeing something spectacular have never been greater”, the RAs say.

One thing is galaxies. The real accomplishment of Galaxy Zoo, I think, is the social technology employed. Galaxy Zoo is the astronomers’ counterpart to the Obama presidential campaign. Thousands of online individuals are networked into a great, enthusiastic, web-based social movement — for electing Obama, classifying galaxies, modelling protein folding, or whatever.

Which makes me think — would it be possible to do something similar with respect to the preservation and curation of the medical heritage? And what would such a social technology platform look like? A wiki for physical objects?

1001 blog posts later — almost four years old

By Biomedicine in museums

The first regular post (in Danish) on this blog was published almost four years ago. Since then we have grown from a handfull of local readers to between eight and nine thousand visitors per month worldwide.

Our ambition has been to post something every day (at least Mondays through Fridays) that is relevant for the field of biomedical museology. And we’ve almost made it (at least the frequency part). Yesterday, we published post #1001 — a review by our senior curator Søren Bak-Jensen of the new online exhibition ‘Making Visible Embryos‘ by Cambridge historians of science Tatjana Buklijas and Nick Hopwood.

Why celebrate post #1001 and not #1000? Remember the old Persian story One Thousand and One Nights? About how Sheherazade avoided being killed by the evil king by telling him a new exciting story each night. After one thousand and one nights the king had been morally transformed and married her.

Today is World Philosophy Day: Should we kill healthy people for their organs?

By Biomedicine in museums

Today is World Philosophy Day (initiated by UNESCO in 2005), which gives University of Glasgow philosophy lecturer David Bain an occasion to ask one of these questions that generations of teachers have given their students for exams in moral philosophy: Should we kill healthy people for their organs?  

Suppose Bill is a healthy man without family or loved ones. Would it be ok painlessly to kill him if his organs would save five people, one of whom needs a heart, another a kidney, and so on? If not, why not?

Consider another case: you and six others are kidnapped, and the kidnapper somehow persuades you that if you shoot dead one of the other hostages, he will set the remaining five free, whereas if you do not, he will shoot all six. (Either way, he’ll release you.)

If in this case you should kill one to save five, why not in the previous, organs case? If in this case too you have qualms, consider yet another: you’re in the cab of a runaway tram and see five people tied to the track ahead. You have the option of sending the tram on to the track forking off to the left, on which only one person is tied. Surely you should send the tram left, killing one to save five.

But then why not kill Bill?

Are students in medical ethics also asked that kind of questions? Or is it considered inappropriate in a Medical School?

(thanks to Tim Lewens for the tip)

The hidden meaning in a microarray image

By Biomedicine in museums

This blog uses a microarray pattern as background wallpaper — as a symbol of the new postgenomic challenge to the public engagement with medicine in general and to medical history museums in particular. And so we take every opportunity to display microarray images.

Like this pic which flew in my face this morning when I opened an RSS feed from Medgadget (vigilant as usual). It’s not an ‘authentic’ microarray pattern, though, but a cryptogram in the form of a pastel painting made by Peter C. Johnson, CEO of the Raleigh-based biomedical technology consultancy company Scintellix.

It’s called ‘MicroArray’ (very creative 🙂 — and you can win $1500 if you decipher it. Read more here.

This is the first image in a planned series that will “explore the hidden meaning found in biological imagery”, initated by Johnson/Scintellix in co-operation with Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, one of the oldest magazines in the field.

Very smart branding method for Scintellix, for GEN and for the sponsor (microarray producer Agilent).