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August 2009

Ny udstilling om proteinforskning

By Biomedicine in museums

Nu på fredag, den 4. september, åbner vi endnu en ny udstilling, nemlig “Primary Substances: Treasures from the history of protein research”.

Det sker ikke her på Medicinsk Museion i Bredgade, men i det nye udstillingsområde i Vandrehallen i Panumbygningen på Blegdamsvej 3 her i København.

Åbningen starter med en times indlæg i Dam-auditoriet kl. 14.00 og så kan man se udstillingen i Vandrehallen fra kl. 15 og fremover.

Udstillingen viser en række ikoniske objekter, som udgør en central del af den biomedicinske kulturarv igennem de seneste to århundreder og dermed bidrager til dannelsen af en biomedicinsk kulturel identitet i dag.

Udstillingen bygger på en række unikke historiske objekter fra museer, arkiver og private samlinger i Danmark, Sverige og England. Sammen danner de et skatkammer, der spejler proteinforskningens udvikling siden Jöns Jakob Berzelius dannede ordet ‘protein’ i 1838.

Udstillingen er sponsoreret af Novo Nordisk Fonden og er blevet til i anledning af åbningen af Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research. Den indvier samtidig fakultetets nye udstillingsområde i Panumbygningen.

Udstillingen er lavet af en gruppe herinde på Medicinsk Museion. Jeg har været hovedkurator og har fået hjælp af Laura Maria Schütze med at holde styr på udvalget af genstande og billeder og af Adam Bencard, som har skrevet tekster om proteinmetaforer. Vi har haft et meget fint samarbejde med Jens Bukrinski, som er proteinforsker på Novo Nordisk A/S.

Arkitekt- og opsætningsarbejdet er lavet af Mikael Thorsted, Studio8, med støtte af Johnny Madsen, og det grafiske arbejde af Lars Møller Nielsen, også Studio8 (alle tre var for øvrigt med på Del+Hel). Ion Meyer, Nanna Gerdes og Siri Wahlstrøm her fra Medicinsk Museion har lavet et stort arbejde med at hente og klargøre de ofte temmelig snavsede genstande fra museumsmagasiner og private samlinger i Danmark og Sverige (en ting er lånt fra Cambridge, UK). Og så har Jonas Paludan og Nikoolaj Møbius hjulpet os med et par elektroniske installationer.

Udstillingen ville ikke være blevet til noget uden et omfattende samarbejde med en række institutioner og privatpersoner, som har lånt genstande ud, hjulpet os med billeder, forklaret obegribelige proteinsammenhænge eller bare været hjælpsomme i største almindelighed.

Her er introduktionsteksten til udstillingen:

The word ‘protein’ was introduced in 1838 by the Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius. He derived it from the Greek word πρωτειος, meaning ‘first rank’, ‘primary’ etc., because he thought organic substances like fibrin and albumin were “the primitive or principal substances for animal nutrition”.

Since then, generations of chemists, physicists, physiologists and medical researchers have elucidated the structure of proteins and their function in the cellular machinery of the body in increasingly sophisticated detail.

Scientists from the Nordic countries have played an important role in the development of this truly cross-disciplinary field of research – not least in the invention of new analytical methods.

This exhibition displays a selection of artefacts – separation apparatus, measurement instruments, molecular models, results of experimental work, etc – that represent this impressive research tradition in different ways.

We call it an exhibition of treasures, because several of the displayed artefacts have been used in internationally cutting-edge laboratory work; some even for Nobel Prize winning research. They are iconic objects for the formation of a biomedical cultural identity in the same way as Arne Jacobsen’s chairs, lamps and tableware are icons of 20th-century modernism.

The word ‘treasure’ has another meaning as well. Like most other people, scientists collect things – a piece of electrophoretic apparatus, a polyacrylamide gel, a protein model and so forth – which they have used in their daily work in the laboratory. Evocative objects invested with meanings and affects. Things that elicit memories of the life in the lab, its successes and failures. Artefacts that open up memories, like the Madeleine cake did for Marcel Proust in his famous novel À la recherche du temps perdu.

Over time, some of these treasures have ended up in museums. But most of them still remain in the custody of individual scientists and research laboratories.

We have been lucky to be able to draw on both kinds of collections. Many of the objects on display here are simultaneously cultural artefacts and things, which are appreciated on personal and subjective grounds – they balance on the boundary between history and personal memory. They remind us that the historical value and sentimental value of material objects are not easily separated.

The history of hypochondria as mediated by artists, writers and philosophers

By Biomedicine in museums

My GP once told me I suffer from ‘conscious hypochondria’ — every cough, every bout of fever, is a source of great anxiety. So maybe it would help me to attend the afternoon symposium on ‘Culture and Hypochondria’ at Tate Britain, London, on Friday 18 September 2009.

The speakers — Julia Borossa, Steven Connor, Brian Dillon, Darian Leader, and Caroline Rooney —will explore the history and contemporary meaning of illness and anxiety as mediated by artists, writers and philosophers:

Hypochondria is an ancient name for a malady that is always fretfully new: the fear of disease and the experience of one’s body as alien and unpredictable. Its history is ambiguous: an organic disease with verifiable symptoms, it slowly lost its physical attributes until it came to be seen as a purely psychological disturbance or disreputable character trait. Every historical period has felt itself to be an era of heightened hypochondriacal anxieties; the disorder remains current, but its manifestations shift and alter and overlap from one century, or one decade, to another. The history of hypochondria is an X-ray of the more solid and familiar history of medicine; it reveals the underlying structure of our hopes and fears about our bodies.

More here.

Is there a 'neuroscientific turn' in the humanities and social sciences?

By Biomedicine in museums

A year ago, Adam and I made fun of the tendency in the humanities and social sciences to invent ‘turns’ — the linguistic turn, the bodily turn, etc. (see earlier posts here and here).

But some ‘turns’ are more justified than others. Melissa Littlefield at the University of Illinois and Jenell Johnson at the Louisiana State University have just sent out a call for papers for an edited collection of essays preliminary titled ‘The Neuroscientific Turn in the Humanities and Social Sciences’:

From economics to English, religious studies to recreation, neurology has become the latest theoretical tool for analyzing society and culture. While there has been some backlash against this trend, research continues to emerge in areas of neurotheology, neuromarketing, neuroethics, neuroaesthetics, the neurohumanities, and neurohistory to name but a few. We are seeking essays for an edited collection that analyze and interrogate this recent neuroscientific turn in the humanities and social sciences. We are particularly interested to hear from researchers who apply the neuro- to their own disciplinary work.

Here are some of the questions the editors raise:

  • Why has there been a shift to using neuroscience as an epistemological framework and/or theoretical tool in the humanities and social sciences?
  • What kind of arguments does it allow / foreclose / refute?
  • How is this trend related to the ‘decade of the brain’?
  • How do visualization technologies like fMRI shape or limit the neuroscientific turn?
  • Is the neuroscientific turn interdiscplinary, cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary?
  • What are the rights and responsibilities of such inter/cross/multiple-disciplinary research?
  • Should this neuro- research fall under the purview of neuroethics?
  • What roles do print and digital media play in the development and distribution of this trend?
  • Why and how do the humanities and the social sciences need the neurosciences?
  • What can the neurosciences learn from this trend in the humanities and the social sciences?
  • How might these fields combine into a discipline of their own?

You are invited to submit a 300 word abstract and a brief (1-3 page) CV to both Melissa Littlefield ( and Jenell Johnson ( by 30 October. Final versions of the essays will be tentatively due by 1 June next year.

Beyond postmodern bioart?

By Biomedicine in museums

Yesterday, Vancouver-based writer and curator Robin Laurence wrote a persuasive plaidoyer for post-postmodern art, which I believe has some implications for the understanding of bioart in museums (I’ve been musing about bioart in sci/tech/med museums before).

Laurence identifies a movement of “emerging and established artists who are working with found and salvaged materials, discarded objects and even detritus in what could be seen as a ‘shabby’ or ‘garbage’ aesthetic” which draws attention to “everyday waste and overconsumption”:

British artist John Isaacs employs not scrap lumber or old paint cans, but wax and epoxy resin to create highly realistic sculptures. Often grisly and unsettling, they reflect the profound anxieties of our age. In another approach, artists are embracing a modest scale and old-fashioned media, such as drawing, painting, collage and fiber. Their humble, handmade creations suggest the emergence of a “kitchen table” sensibility. Raymond Pettibon, for example, is acclaimed for his cartoon-like ink drawings on paper, which are filled with social and political observations and quotes from literature and popular culture. Ghada Amer represents a neo-feminist sensibility. Her work, which often consists of embroidered paintings, sculptures and installations, addresses the condition of women, including their sexuality and desire. Her canvases, their images and text embroidered in colored threads, also reveal the kind of gestural, abstract-expressionist painting that postmodernists long ago abandoned. This suggests that the individual “mark” is also part of the new aesthetic.

Rirkrit Tiravanija attempts to change the emphasis in art from the making of objects and their viewing within an institution to socializing and the sharing of experiences. These experiences often revolve around food, which the artist prepares and serves to his audiences – who are also participants in the creation of his art.

In addition to these artists, Robin Laurence focuses her search-light on the legions of street artists,

whose political, social and environmental beliefs are temporarily communicated in alleys, vacant lots and abandoned telephone booths – through graffiti murals, urban ‘interventions,’ posters, stickers … and drawings dropped into the gutter. Again their strategies aren’t new, but they’ve taken on a new urgency in light of today’s economic and environmental crises.

Obviously, bioart is a contested genre. There is a strong tendency to turn bioart into institutionalised high art. This is what, for example, the Wellcome Collection is doing, over and over again (and how could they do otherwise?). We too: in fact, every exhibition we have produced has contained an element of this “postmodern trend toward large, glossy and expensive production”. Our latest exhibition, Split + Splice, is a good example. It may not be as expensive as Olafur Eliasson’s productions. But it’s surely expensive compared to what most medical museums tend to use to spend on artwork!

But — and this is my point — sometimes we have moved into the sphere of urban intervention art, like in the 2006 exhibition ‘Sygdommens Ansigt’ [The Face of Disease] by Huskegruppen. That’s almost it, however. We’ve still got a lot to do in that direction.

Significant medical objects

By Biomedicine in museums

Haidy Geismar’s post on ‘significant objects’ gave me an idea for a curatorial game that might increase the awareness of the importance of the material culture and aesthetics of biomedicine and biotechnology:

  1. ask a faculty member/graduate student/technician to choose a favourite biomedical object, i.e., an object which is of some significance for them personally, workwise or otherwise.
  2. the object may be old or new, small or big, ugly or beautiful, doesn’t matter
  3. but it shall be an object, not an idea, image or text
  4. ask for at description/story/anecdote connected with the object
  5. and a technical description of the object
  6. and a photo if possible — or pay a visit and snap one
  7. post the story on your blog (preferrably this blog 🙂
  8. approach the next faculty member/graduate student/technician

and so forth — then wait for awareness of the material culture and aesthetics of biomedicine to spread like a virus.

Endoscopic art performance

By Biomedicine in museums

Come to Copenhagen and watch UK-based artist Phillip Warnell’s intestines from the inside on Sunday 13 September.

The performance will take place in the old anatomical theatre at Medical Museion at 2 pm. Phillip will swallow a pill camera that is going to send images to a screen — allowing you to follow its way through his intestinal system. London-based consultant gastroenterologist Simon Anderson will be commentator.

Art historian Rune Gade, body historian Adam Bencard and historian of ideas Jan Eric Olsén will set the performance in perspective with references to the status of contemporary performance art, historical understandings of the body and the historical background for today’s endoscopic diagnostics.

The event is organised by Bente Vinge Pedersen and Jonas Paludan here at Medical Museion in cooperation with Golden Days. Tickets (120 DKK) can be bought here.

See also Golden Days website.

Artefacts meeting at Science Museum, 20-22 September

By Biomedicine in museums

The program for the Artefacts meeting at Science Museum, 20-22 September, has been finalised. It looks great! Medical Museion’s former senior curator Søren Bak-Jensen (now at the Copenhagen City Museum) will present some of the ideas behind the current exhibition ‘Split+Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine’. Here is the whole list of papers for the meeting:

  • Bruce Lewenstein, Cornell University.
    Can museum visitors learn about the relation of science and technology in museums?
  • Peter Donhauser, Vienna Museum of Technology.
    Science versus technology in a museum’s display. Changes in the Vienna Museum.
  • Benjamin Gross, Princeton University.
    “The Antithesis of the Attic”: Historical Artifacts, “Interactive” Exhibits, and the Presentation of Science at the Franklin Institute Museum.
  • Pnina Abir-Am, Brandeis University.
    “DNA at 50” in Museums of Science and Technology: Regional Culture, Medium, and Message.
  • Søren Bak-Jensen,  Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen.
    Relaying the aesthetic and artistic aspects of recent biomedical technologies.
  • Alfons Zarzoso, Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya. Gabarro’s Chess-Board Excision and skin grafting: medical exile in Word War II England.
  • Alison Taubman,  National Museums of Scotland.
    From Ships to Chips:  Collecting contemporary Scottish engineering.
  • Ben Russell, Science Museum.
    James Watt’s Workshop: from steam pioneer to creative professional.
  • Dirk Bühler, Deutsches Museum.
    Portraits of Architectural and Engineering Achievements.
  • Klaus Staubermann, National Museums of Scotland.
    Science and Technology as Practice: Dividing Engines in Museums.
  • Dirk van Delft, Director, Museum Boerhaave.
    The Quest for Absolute Zero: A Human Story about Rivalry & Cold.
  • Jane Wess, Senior Curator of Science, Science Museum.
    Pure Mathematics?: The Cleaning up of Context.
  • Jennifer Landry, Chemical Heritage Foundation.
    Beyond the Black Box: A different approach to interpreting the history of chemistry.
  • Frank Dittmann, Deutsches Museum.
    Paper on Robotics (title to be confirmed).
  • Tom Crouch,  National Air and Space Museum. Capable of Flight? The Interplay of Science and Technology In the Aeronautical Work of Samuel Pierpont Langley.
  • Jennifer Levasseur & Margaret A. Weitekamp, National Air and Space Museum.
    Moving Beyond Earth: Exhibiting the Space Shuttle and Future Human Spaceflight.
  • Paul Forman, National Museum of American History, Reflection on the workshop

Archives for contemporary science at risk

By Biomedicine in museums

Just got a letter from the University of Bath librarian, who says that the National [i.e., UK] Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists is closing 31 October. That’s sad, because in the 22 years since the unit moved to Bath, it has been instrumental in securing nearly 200 scholarly archives in institutional libraries around the UK — a very important contribution to the preservation of an important part of the contemporary scientific and engineering heritage. I haven’t heard about any similar closures in other European countries, so let’s hope this is not the beginning of a broader tendency to neglect the history of contemporary science, technology and medicine.

Do Europeans not produce any interesting medical technologies?

By Biomedicine in museums

Medgadget believes there is a good reason why their blog mainly covers medical devices and technologies coming from the United States, namely the great American healthcare system, “equipped with the latest technologies, smart doctors and clean hospitals … a system that delivers unbelievable technologies to help patients day in and day out”.

“There must be a reason”, they add, “why we almost never see anything interesting coming out of France, Greece, Spain, Italy, or most other European countries (Germany being the clear exception)”.

Medgadget asks this rhetorical question as an argument against the Obama administration’s health care plan. But besides the pros and cons of Obamacare, I wonder if the claim is really true. Is the US really the motor of medical device innovation? Do Europeans not produce any interesting medical technologies?

Historically, this is of course an outrageous claim. Brought up in technologically innovative Sweden and now living in a small country (Denmark) with a plethora of small and large medical device companies, I intuitively know it is plainly wrong. And I can easily substantiate my intuition with a lot of anecdotal evidence — Coloplast and Oticon in Denmark, Gambro, Getinge and Elekta in Sweden, just to name a few.

The combined annual production value of the Danish and Swedish medical device industries is around 90 billion DKK (~15 billion USD). In the light of a total population of around 15 million this is a pretty impressive achievement. (And note that these are countries with strong national health care systems!)

But I must confess that I don’t know if this high productivity is the result of innovations of the past. Is the innovation rate still high? A 2007 report from the Royal Institute of Technology, the Karolinska Institute and Karolinska University Hospital indicates that many of the most important Swedish innovations are 30-50 years old and that there are signs that the rate of innovation is declining. Maybe the situation is similar in Denmark? That would make Medgadget’s claim somewhat less outrageous.

But that said I believe there are more obvious reasons for why Medgadget almost only covers medical devices and technologies coming from the US, namely the fact that the editors are situated in the US, that they are thus familiar with US industrial culture, have a tendency to follow American websites, and (most importantly) cannot read the current of daily tech news published in Danish, Swedish and other European languages. In other words, Medgadget’s medical device universe is nationally myopic.

Sci-med-tech museum gang

By Biomedicine in museums

There are several kinds of cooperations between sci-med-tech museums, and I’m not particularly critical of any of them (except one). But I’m nevertheless waiting for someone to take the initiative to a SciMedTechMusGang.

I’m thinking of something analogous to the BioGang — “an informal, distributed collection of geeky life scientists who have come together to try and think of cool problems and ideas that can be solved collaboratively”. Neil Saunders characterizes a biogang as a group with “lack of respect for institutional boundaries and restrictions”.

Someone might say that sci-med-tech museum people aren’t geeky enough, or that we are not confronted with any particularly cool problems, or that the fact that we work in very stable institutions will usually make us skeptical to people of lack respect for institutional boundaries.

But that aside, I believe that the creation of new interesting future sci-med-tech museum practices— especially practices on the border between physical museums and web solutions — would benefit from a SciMedTechMusGang.