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Monthly Archives

June 2009

Medical archives and collections in a design history perspective

By Biomedicine in museums

Interesting initiative — I am thinking of the launch of the Archives, Collections and Curatorship section of the Journal of Design History, which could be useful for those of us who work with the history of medical technological artefacts.

The journal section wants authors to evaluate the relevance of an archive or collection as a resource for design historical research — for example, by taking more critical perspectives or reflecting on the practice of collecting, archiving and doing research in archives or collections. They include all kinds of archives and collections held by museums, libraries, businesses, educational institutions, etc. (digital or physical), and they expect all sorts of authors: historians, archivists, museum professionals, curators, designers, students, etc.

This is interesting to us because it could be an opportunity to sum up the experience we had a couple years ago, when our neighbour, the Danish Museum for Art & Design, created a big exhibition about Danish design history. They did not only display the usual suspects (B&O television sets, etc), but also chose to show some 60 medical artefacts from our collections and put them in a design history perspective. We had never thought of that before — what an eye opener it was to co-operate with their curators!

Format for articles is: overview/summary of the archive, collection or exhibition; evaluation of its relevance, usefulness, strengths and weaknesses; 2500-5000 words; up to eight images; and access information. See instructions for authors here (; submit via Queries to the AC&C editor, Nicolas P. Maffei

Visible and invisible radiation

By Biomedicine in museums

When New York-based artist Joan Linder passed by Medical Museion a late afternoon a few weeks ago, we took a tour around the collections. We came into the X ray collection room right after 5 PM, at the rare moment when a lonely sunray found its way between the adjacent buildings at the exactly right angle and hit one of the displayed delicate x-ray vacuum tubes by the window.

The effect was electric — I have never seen these vacuum tubes like this before. It was like a visible radiation coming from the outside commenting on the invisible radiation from within the tube. Joan grabbed her camera and shot an image before the sunray disappeared again:

(photo: Joan Linder)

15th congress of European Association of Museums for the History of Medical Sciences in Copenhagen, September 2010

By Biomedicine in museums

Make a note in your 2010 calendar already — for the 15th Congress of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences (EAMHMS), which will be held here at Medical Museion in Copenhagen, 17-19 September 2010.

The congress theme revolves around the question: How can medical history museums contribute to the popular engagement in contemporary medicine and health science?

Medicine is in rapid transition. The last fifty years have witnessed tremendous changes in medical science and the health system. Molecular biology has introduced entirely new methods for diagnostics and specific therapeutical regimes, and has boosted a flourishing biotech industry. The digital revolution has given rise to whole new areas of medical technology and medical device industries. The elucidation of the human genome has opened up the possibility for personalized medicine and promises to change the authority relations between the medical professions and the public.

This late 20th century transition in medicine and the health sciences is a major challenge for medical history museums – with respect to their research programs, their acquisition policies, their collection management procedures, their exhibition design practices and their public outreach strategies. Contemporary medicine thus raises important historiographical and museological questions which medical history museums need to address:

  • What kind of research programs will help establish new collection and exhibition practices?
  • What kind of acquisition policies are needed to cope with the rapid developent of contemporary medical science and technology, especially the proliferation of molecular and digital artefacts?
  • How can collection management procedures adopt to the many new kinds of artefacts that produced in the medical system, including molecular and digital artefacts?
  • How can exhibitions contribute to the popular engagement with the rapidly changing medical and health system?
  • How shall public outreach handle emerging web 2.0 communication technologies for the benefit of museums? 

These and similar questions are increasingly asked by museum curators in science, technology and medical museums, historians of science, technology and medicine, scholars in science studies and science communication studies, medical and health professionals with an interest in medical history and medical history museums, and so forth. The congress will therefore also be open to presentations by scholars working in these and similar fields.

Congress participants will get an opportunity to visit museums of interest in the greater Copenhagen area, Denmark, and southern Sweden before and after the meeting.

A first call for papers, sessions, panels and other presentation channels will be distributed by the end of the summer 2009. For further information, please contact me on this address:

Useful spam

By Biomedicine in museums

The Akismet filter doesn’t work 100%, so we get a handful of spam comments for moderation each week. They are almost always deleted after a short glance, of course.

For the two last weeks, however, a certain dtpizk[at] has passed through the spam filter with a wave of comments, which are sort of interesting — a series of short, vague and polite comments about how great a particular post or the blog as a whole is. Like these ones:

Good post! I plan to move into this stuff after I’m done with school, as most of it is time consuming. It’s a great post to reference back to. My blog needs more time to gain in popularity anyway.

This is great! It really shows me where to expand my blog. I think that sometime in the future I might try to write a book to go along with my blog, but we will see…Good post with useful tips and ideas

This is great! Now I want to see your ways for us readers to become more involved! Expect an email later today.

Looks like your question thing at the end of the post worked. Also not having to sign in is nice too. Good job. Nice list. Thanks.

They are meaningless, in the sense that they don’t really comment on the post in question. Like most spam, they are probably automatically generated and sent out by a robot. But the phrases as such are nevertheless interesting, because they resemble the kind of short, polite comments I sometimes construct when I want to reply in a friendly way to an unsolicited email.

Together these spam comments thus constitute a repository of phrases that could be useful in situations where you want to leave a vaguely courteous but uncommitted response. So in a paradoxical way they are quite useful, after all. Thanks, dtpizk!

Also, for some peculiar reason I cannot escape being flattered by the robot’s nice words. Even though I know they are automatically generated. The damned trick works! It’s like in movies I’ve seen of elderly Japanese being taken care of by a human-looking robot — the humans respond to the robots as if they were living beings.

Sublim biomedicinsk selviscenesættelse

By Biomedicine in museums

Herinde på Medicinsk Museion er vi et par stykker, der er vildt fascinerede af, hvordan (biomedicinske) forskere iscenesætter sig selv, fx. gennem CV’er, på websites, i presseinterviews, etc. Dvs. hvordan forskere bruger medierne til at brande deres selvbiografiske identitetskonstruktioner.

Skandinaviske forskere anses normalt være langt bagud i denne internationale individuelle branding-konkurrence. Men der findes interessante undtagelser. I et interview på, siger årets EliteForsk-prisvinder, Milena Penkowa fra Institut for Neurovidenskab og Farmakologi ved Det Sundhedsvidenskabelige Fakultet på Københavns Universitet om sig selv, at hun er ugift, ikke har nogen børn, men en kæreste og bor på indre Vesterbro. Og fortsætter:

“Jeg elsker genialitet og højteknologi inklusive hurtige biler (roadsters og formel-1). Jeg er et udpræget konkurrencemenneske, jeg elsker at blive udfordret og presset. Jeg ser muligheder og optimeringsbehov i alt omkring mig, ikke kun i forskningen. Af samme grund er næsten alle mine ejendele inklusive min lejligheds inventar blevet ændret, transformeret (redesignet) og optimeret ud fra egen forestilling om individualitet, originalitet og/eller øget funktionalitet. (eksempelvis har jeg ‘customized’ mine møbler, mit tøj etc.). Dén karakter afspejler blot min pionérånd, innovationstalent og ledernatur. Jeg er meget viljestærk, ekstremt målrettet og fuld af selvtillid, selvsikkerhed og mod, hvilket er mig til gavn i min forskning og i livet generelt”.

Sådan! Og hun lægger til: “Jeg skelner ikke mellem min ‘professionelle’ og ‘private’ person: min person er en livsstil”. Og slutter: “Jeg er udmærket klar over, at jeg er særegen, for nogle ubegribelig eller mærkelig, men jeg er helt bedøvende ligeglad, for jeg elsker mit liv”.

Det har jeg sådan set ingen problemer med. Der er mange forskere, især inden for naturvidenskab, medicin og teknologi, som er ekstremt konkurrenceorienterede og som ikke rigtigt skelner mellem deres professionelle og private liv (det har jeg selv nogle gange svært ved :-). Der er mange forskere, hvis interesser er ubegribelige og mærkelige for de fleste i deres omgivelser. Og man støder også i ny og næ på kollegaer som ser “muligheder og optimeringsbehov i alt” omkring dem selv, inklusive deres medmennesker, som bruges som midler til at fremme deres egen selvrealisering.

Men det er de færreste, der er bedøvende ligeglade med, hvad vi andre mener om deres behov for at optimere omgivelserne. Og endnu færre, som bevidst iscenesætter sig selv på den måde. De fleste har nok lidt skyldfølelse over at de en gang imellem kommer til at bruge deres medmennesker som råstof. Eller skammer sig i hvert fald.

Men ikke i dette tilfælde. Det er — hvis journalisten har citeret rigtigt —Ayn Rand‘s individualistiske filosofi for fuld udblæsning. Det er lidt fascinerende men også lidt skræmmende — det er sublimt i ordets oprindelige filosofiske betydning!

Og så kan man spørge sig: Er der overhovedet en sammenhæng mellem forskerens personlighed og forskningens kvalitet? Er de forskere, som afviser de klassiske sociale dyder mere produktive og mere geniale end andre? Fremmer ekstrem individuel konkurrencementalitet og bevidst selviscenesættelse vidensudviklingen? Er det virkelig de forskere, der er fulde af selvtillid, selvsikkerhed og mod som sætter den kognitive dagsorden — eller dem, der har evnen at tvivle indimellem, også på deres egne resultater og valg?

Eye Catchers and Swagger Images — a new exhibition about scientific posters

By Biomedicine in museums

In addition to Split and Splice, we have recently opened another and smaller exhibition in the reception hall — Eye Catchers and Swagger Images: Research in Poster Format (Danish: Blikfang og blærebilleder: forskning i posterformat) — with a selection of our collection of scientific posters, from the mid-1980s to the present.

The idea behind the exhibition goes back to August 2007, when we had a specialist workshop on Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context here at Medical Museion, followed by a conference on Biomedicine and Art.

One of the speakers at the Biomedicine and Art conference was James Elkins (the Art Institute of Chicago), who spoke about the new impulses for art theory and visual studies presented by science, technology and medicine. Rikke Vindberg, who had finished her Masters degree in history and who had quite a lot of experience of exhibition making, attended Elkins’s talk and was intrigued.

Afterwards, we discussed different possibilities for applying Elkins’s ideas (especially in Visual Practices Across the University, 2007) and eventually decided to take a closer look at scientific posters, because it is an interesting hybrid form of expression between science and art.

In October 2007 we attended a medical scientific congresses in Copenhagen to get a first-hand look at a big and active scientific poster session (with many hundreds of posters) and to discuss the content and features of the posters with the scientists that had produced them.

We also wanted to acquire posters for our growing collections of contemporary biomedicine. Rikke contacted research groups at the Faculty of Health Sciences and the National Hospital (Rigshospitalet), and within a few months, she had acquired some 30 posters from different biomedical and clinical research areas, representing a variety of textual and visual expressions; the oldest from the mid-1980s

Rikke summarized her acquisition project in a 25 page curatorial report (in Danish only, unfortunately) before she left to have her first baby. But in March, when discussing how to refurbish our reception room here at the museum, the idea came up to display the poster collection. Fortunately (for the museum that is), Rikke had not yet found a new job and could therefore take on the task at once.

The result is a small, unique and fascinating exhibition. The main idea is simple. In contrast to most sci- and bio-art shows, Eye Catchers and Swagger Images highlights the aesthetic practices within science itself. The guiding idea is that all medical scientific activity, in the laboratory and elsewhere, is permeated by aesthetic practices — there is no medical science action, site or space that is not, somehow, infused with aesthetic considerations, most probably unconscious.

Scientific posters are different, however. Poster production is a lab practice which most scientists are acutely aesthetically aware about. When interviewing medical scientists in connection with the acquisitions, Rikke inquired into their aesthetic views and their choice of graphic and iconic expressions in the posters. Several of these are quoted in the exhibition.

Here’s Rikke Vindberg (right) and museum assistant Jeppe Hørring a couple of days before the show opened in late May:


Eye Catchers and Swagger Images will be open at least until early next year.

Split and Splice: Fragments From the Age of Biomedicine — new exhibition at Medical Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

Last Thursday, we opened our new temporary exhibition Split and Splice: Fragments From the Age of Biomedicine (Danish: Del and Hel: Brudstykker fra biomedicinens tid) here at Medical Museion. In the next couple of days, we will hopefully be able to upload some images from the opening (depends on when Benny has sorted out the hundreds of pictures he took).

Until then — why did we make this particular exhibition? The decision actually goes back five years in time, to the spring of 2004, when we were beginning to restructure the old medical-historical museum here in Copenhagen — a task we were thinking of in three ways:

First, we wanted to integrate the practice of a museum (cultural heritage and exhibition making) with the logic of the university (which is research and teaching), in order to emphasise that a university museum like ours is a site of museological experimentation, a place where we do research in new theories and methods for museum science communication.

Second, we wanted to understand what is going on in medicine today — the recent merger between basic biological science, medicine and information technology. And third, we wanted to transcend the usual narrative and didactic exhibition practice which was (and still is) so common in museums of science, technology and medicine. We wanted to highlight the stunning visual and material culture of medicine. We wanted to focus on the immediacy and presence of the clinic and the laboratory (the phenomenology of biomedicine if you want) rather than just explaining and contextualising the results of biomedical science — something that other media can do much better. We simply believed that a more conscious aesthetic approach opens up for a stronger emotional engagement with the world of science.

We were so fortunate that a private research foundation (the Novo Nordisk Foundation) found these ideas interesting and realistic. So for the last four years, we have run a combined research, collecting and exhibition project — called ‘Biomedicine on Display’ — to explore aspects of the visual and material culture of contemporary biomedicine.

The research output of these four project years can be read in a growing series of articles in international scholarly journals (and hopefully, an anthology in 2010). The result of the collecting effort is a growing number of exciting, peculiar and evocative artefacts in our storage facilities here in the museum. And the public outreach, finally, has resulted in a number of exhibitions over the last three years — first, Oldetopia and 100 Light Years then Design4Science, and now Split and Splice.

To strengthen the experimental and aesthetic approach to biomedical culture, we asked Canadian artist and designer Martha Fleming, who has a strong interest in science and science museums, to be lead curator. I had met Martha at a conference in Paris in 2001, we then met occasionally over the years after, and in 2007 we organised a workshop and a conference about biomedicine, art and aesthetics here in Copenhagen. It was therefore quite natural to ask Martha to supervise our group of post-doc fellows in the ‘Biomedicine on Display’-project (Susanne Bauer, Sniff Andersen Nexø, Jan Eric Olsén and Søren Bak-Jensen) and transform them into a team of exhibition curators.

This also meant that we took the full consequence of our current search for new forms for public communication of medical science in a museum context. Split and Splice is not a historical or a didactic medical science exhibition — it is a 250 m2 sci-art installation. In other words, there are very few explanations and attributions of meaning in textual form, instead there is a strong focus on the material and visual presence of contemporary medical science.

Whether you will like it or not probably depends on what you expect from an exhibition in a medical museum. If you’re looking for explicit historical contextualizations and explanations for contemporary biomedicine, you would probably be disappointed. But if you are willing to let your mind and senses be stimulated by material surfaces, forms, colours, unexpected juxtapositions of artefacts, etc. you will hopefully like it.

As I said, we will get back with images from the opening and selected rooms and installations. We also intend to bring comments from visitors and others, and clippings from press reviews.

Interest in book and journal marginalia grows as Google and publishers puts books and journals online

By Biomedicine in museums

As a comment to the current weeding out of physical copies of scientific journals in many libraries around the world (because more and more older journal series are put online), Karen Reeds points out (in a recent comment on the H-SCI-TECH-MED list, #105, 2009) that there are good reasons to save the actual physical copies of books and journals with all their marginalia instead of relying on digitised copies only:

The evidence of actual use makes the marked-up copies unique and very good both for teaching and rousing public interest in the works (not to mention your library). And scholarly interest in such annotations growing

she writes and adds:

I’d urge taking a minute or two for each volume to check for signatures, marginalia, bookmarks and other indications of provenance and readers’ reactions to the works

Agree! Marginalia are sometimes more interesting than the printed text itself. But it also makes me think that such alleged scholarly interest in annotations may be growing precisely because of the progressive destruction of the paper-based literature. In other words, if Google and others had not started putting library books and journals online, and therefore induced more and more (smaller) libraries to weed out their paper copies, few scholars would be interested in such marginalia.