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Monthly Archives

October 2009

Congrats to the Wellcome Library staff …

By Biomedicine in museums

… who have run a succesful and well-visited blog for a year now and

waxed lyrical about the Library’s collections in the areas of cataloguing and digitisation projects, new accessions, and new discoveries about existing items in the collections; bragged about the use of Library material in the media, news topics about the Library’s activities, and events and workshops going on at the Library or involving Library staff, or pontificated to the wider world about so many other areas of relevance to the Library and the History of Medicine that [they] can’t possibly list them all here.

That’s the spirit!

Nina Simon (museum 2.0) til seminar på Medicinsk Museion, torsdag 29. oktober

By Biomedicine in museums

Nina Simon, bedst kendt for museum 2.0 blog, besøger Medicinsk Museion imorgen for at præsentere sine ideer ved et frokostseminar. Ninas besøg er perfekt timet til vores planlægningsdiskussion for 2010-2012, som bl.a. handler om hvordan vi skal inddrage sundhedssektorn (vores kernepublikum) og den almene befolkning (vi er alle potentielle patienter) som aktive deltagere i den fortsatte opbygningen og udnyttelse af samlingerne, fx. i udstillinger og på webben — planer som vi kommer at videreudvikle her på bloggen i de næste par uger. Hvis nogen vil deltage, så skriv til Jeppe ( eller ring 3532 3800.

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Nina Simon/museum 2.0 at Medical Museion tomorrow

By Biomedicine in museums

Nina Simon, best known for her awesome museum 2.0 blog, is visiting Medical Museion tomorrow to give a lunch seminar on her ideas on the participatory museum. Her visit fits very well into our current plans for engaging both the health sector and the public in re-organising the collections and permanent exhibitions — more about these plans in the next couple of weeks. If someone wants to attend, send Carsten a mail (

Medicine, archives and researching lives

By Biomedicine in museums

Looks immediately like an innovative angle to the study of lives in science — that is, Wellcome Library’s and the British Records Association’s upcoming conference Researching Lives: Medicine, science and archives on the 8th December at Wellcome Collection in London.

The one-day meeting will deal with the resources available in medical and scientific archives to build up pictures of individual lives — i.e., manuscripts and personal papers, films and photographs, forensic evidence and physical remains, etc. Speakers include Georgina Ferry (science writer), Julianne Simpson and Helen Wakely (Wellcome Library), Simon Chaplin (Royal College of Surgeons), Tim Boon (Science Museum), Paul Carter and Natalie Whistance (the National Archives) and Allan Jamieson (Forensic Institute).

The programme seems a bit unfocused, however — and the ‘researching lives’ theme a fairly loose umbrella for six talks that point in quite different directions. I mean, these are all smart and knowledgeable people and it would have been great if the organisers had created a meeting format that turned this mix of professional backgrounds into a sparkling discussion about the ‘researching lives’ issue, instead of letting them loose 40 minutes each on six different topics.

Anyway, I may be wrong — go and listen for yourself. Further details and a booking form are available from the website of the British Records Association.

The menstrual cycle on display

By Biomedicine in museums

Here’s an innovative way of putting biomedicine on display:


As Vanessa (Street Anatomy) says,

the menstrual cycle has never looked so exciting! […] Perfect for explaining the menstrual cycle for the first time to a young girl … or to a 26-year-old.  I had no idea I went through a luteal lunacy!

Created by I Heart Guts!, “the brainchild of an anatomically obsessed illustrator who loves internal organs and all they do”.

Maybe the next generation of the classic biochemical pathways wall charts could learn a lesson or two — or better, I Heart Guts could make a version of:

(click here for a larger version)

Medical museums and the Janus-faced future of synthetic biology

By Biomedicine in museums

Part of the fun of being involved in a medical museum these days is that the notion of ‘biomedicine’ is so much broader than traditional medicine and health care taught in faculties of medicine and health science.

As a university institution for biomedical science communication we are, by default as it were, confronted with some of the most fundamental issues in the world today. Financial crisis, atomic weapon threats and global warming  aside — the rapid technical development in biology and biomedicine raises some pretty hefty social, political and ethical questions which we, as a museum, can hardly avoid dealing with if we want to stay just minimally atuned to the world around us.

Take the issue of synthetic biology. Forget about the potentials benefits and risks of stem cell biology, nanotech, gene therapy, and so forth. Synthetic biology — the design and construction of new biological systems not found in nature, for example, constructing living cells from simple molecules (proto-cells); creating new biological systems based on biochemical pathways not found in nature; etc — is potentially more powerful, not least for medical therapy and human enhancement. 

Is it safe and secure? Well, of course it isn’t! In yesterday’s issue of Public Service Review: Science and Technology, Markus Schmidt, who leads the SYNBIOSAFE project at the Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management, raises some of the problems involved in the development of synthetic biology:

With the availability of genetic sequence information available on the internet and outsourcing of DNA synthesis to specialised synthesis companies, we are facing the risk that some person with malicious intents might place an order for pathogenic genes.

But there is always two sides to new technologies. In the future, more and more people will probably be able to construct new biological systems (read: democratic technology). Already, the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in Boston invites students from all over the world to construct new biologies. And there are several DIY biotech groups who want to get the techne out of the laboratory, to bring it to the people. Such democratisation of synthetic biology might, as Schmidt rightly observes, lead to a creative revolution similar to that we have seen in the computer industry and the internet. Imagine synthbio 2.0 — love it or hate it.

Schmidt’s institute is only the last in a row of initiatives to discuss the safety and the political, governance and ethical issues involved in synthetic biology. Two years ago a report from the J. Craig Venter Institute discussed the governance problems associated with synthetic biology, and last year a report from the International Association of Synthetic Biology proposed a number of technical solutions for improved biosecurity. And there are several other initiatives around — enough to fill the agenda of a future-looking medical museum.

Schmidt’s analysis is expanded in M. Schmidt, A. Kelle, A. Ganguli-Mitra and H. de Vriend, eds., Synthetic Biology: The technoscience and its societal consequences (2009); there is also a 55 min video here: SYNBIOSAFE: Synthetic biology and its social and ethical implications.

The materiality of scientific objects

By Biomedicine in museums

The material dimension of science is back in focus for historians.  As far back as I remember, it was historians of technology who were the ‘materialists’, whereas historians of science were ‘idealists’. Didn’t really matter what kind of studies they did — historians of science have always tended to be intererested in mind (theories, ideas, concepts, discourses, etc.), whereas historians of technology have given higher priority to matter — material matter, not just conceptualised matter.

But historians of science are about to discover the material aspects of science. Next summer’s workshop ‘Scientific Objects and their Materiality in the History of Chemistry’ is a case in point. Organised by Michael Gordin (Princeton), Ursula Klein( Berlin), and Carsten Reinhardt (Bielefeld) and held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, 24-26 June 2010, it will explore the materiality of scientific objects with a focus on the history of chemistry:

For both experimental inquiry and technical application, the sciences depend on working with material things and processes. In this respect, chemistry is arguably the material science par excellence, primarily through the crucial role of the synthesis of chemical compounds, and the strong interactions with technological institutions and industry. In terms of the representation of its objects of inquiry, chemistry has a peculiarly materialized semiology in a long-standing tradition of graphic formulae and three-dimensional structural models, as well as a rich heritage of ordering systems such as the periodic table. In the middle-ground between representation and intervention there stand certain kinds of principles and entities, some of them invisible, that are both objects of experimental inquiry and theoretical speculation. Concepts such as the atom, element, or phlogiston have laid the groundwork for chemical research in defining the units of ordering systems, constituting the goals for material production, serving as limitations to the extent of chemical practice, or having crucial heuristic roles. And all of them have experienced variation, re-definition, development, suppression, and sometimes even extinction in the course of history.

And they tacitly refer to the notion of ‘mangling of practice’:

Commonly, the materiality of scientific objects has been described by two, arguably conflicting, dimensions: First, by studies of materially-intervening practice—the ways in which ‘real things’ are involved in and condition such practice. Second, by the significance and meaning ascribed to things in discursive practice. These two dimensions are not necessarily in contradiction, and their tension can be used in productive and innovative ways.

I hardly need to emphasise how important this kind of inqury is for museums of science, technology and medicine, because materiality is at the center of the museum enterprise.

 The following concepts/objects are indicative of the organisers’ intentions:
• earth, air, water, fire, ether
• sal, mercur, sulfur
• phlogiston, caloric, oxygen, lumière
• element, compound, composition, mixture, alloy
• electron, atom, bond, molecule, structure
• polymer, colloid, crystal, glass
• salt, base, acid
• metal, halogen, rare earth
• gas, liquid, solid, plasma
• natural product, synthetic product
• supramolecular, nano
• pure, impure
• chemical reaction

The workshop will consist of ca. 15 precirculated papers. The want max 350 words proposals by 1 December, 2009. Write to Carsten Reinhardt:

The body on display

By Biomedicine in museums

It’s difficult now to imagine how once, in a culture long ago, there were no cells or tissues, no molecules or receptors, no hormones, proteins or DNA. Just a body, with organs, sinuses, cavities, limbs, and fluids of different kinds.

This pre-cellular, pre-molecular body will be the object of discussion at a symposium titled ‘The Body on Display, from Renaissance to Enlightenment’ at Durham University, 6-7 July 2010:

At once an organ system, disciplinary target, metaphor, creation of God, cultural construction, ‘self’ and receptacle for the soul, it is not surprising that the body has fallen under the attention of historians of art, gender, thought, medicine, theatre and costume, and of literary scholars, archaeologists and historical sociologists and philosophers. This symposium will look at the human and human-like body on, and as, display, between c.1400 and c.1800. We will explore the notion, and reality, of the exposure of the inner and outer human form, and the representational, visual and material cultures of the body. This was a formative (and even transformative) period for the visual and representational culture of human corporeality, witnessing the watersheds of Renaissance and Enlightenment, challenges to long-held understandings of the body and, allegedly, both the creation of the modern ‘self’ and the eventual secularization of Western society.

And topics might include, e.g.:
-Dissection, the medical ‘gaze’ and medical illustration
-Corporeality and the flesh in the visual, written and performing arts
-The body in religious iconography, hagiography and religious
-Gesture, kinesics and the expression of emotions
-Corporal punishment and bodily shaming
-Clothing, garments and cosmetics and their significance

300 word abstract to before 30 January 2010. Read more here: