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November 2009

Is biomedicine making the body invisible and immaterial — and uncollectable?

By Biomedicine in museums

Is it really the case that almost all museum exhibitions dealing with medical themes these days are displaying DNA-images and colourful neuroscanning pictures?

Well, at least this is what the organisers of a meeting in Dresden next April seem to be suggesting. I think they are exaggerating a bit :-). But that said, the theme of the meeting — KörperGegenwart, neue Technologien, neue Sammlungen [contemporary bodies, new technologies, new collections] — is right on the spot.

The point of departure for the meeting — jointly organised by Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin and Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden — is that the colonisation of the body by means of the life sciences has resulted in a gradual retreat from the immediately visible and material body.

An invisible biomedical body

An invisible biomedical body

The concepts, models and findings of contemporary biomedicine defy immediate visualisation, collecting and conservation. Therefore museums like Deutsche Hygiene-Museum, which was founded with the purpose of displaying the body, find themselves in an entirely new situation.

I couldn’t agree more — this is actually the central point in the paper on biomedicine as a challenge to museums that Adam, Camilla and I have just published. So we have every reason to participate (if we can: the meeting language is German and my German is rusty at best :-).

Rusty or not — it’s worth participating, because the meeting will address three types of timely questions for medical museums: first, the history of the techniques, tools and concepts by means of which the human body has been cut, dissected, interpreted and displayed; second, whether current biomedicine has made the body immaterial; and third, how the new biomedical body affects museum collection practices.

The meeting takes place 22-24 April next year. Read the call for papers here. If you want to participate, send a note to Stiftung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum,, or contact one of the four organisers: Sandra Mühlenberend (, Susanne Roeßiger (, Uta Kornmeier ( or Katrin Solhdju (

Curatorial and artistic techniques in investigating and presenting (biomedical) bodies

By Biomedicine in museums

We are of course not the only museum that struggles with how to juggle art, science, materiality and medicine in our exhibitions. Next Friday, 4 December, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at University of Cambridge is organising a most interesting afternoon symposium titled ‘Assembling Bodies: Art, Science & Imagination’.

Curators and artistic contributors to MAA’s current experimental exhibition with the same name will explore techniques of investigation and presentation — including relationships between the body and material things, the potential of exhibitions as research projects, incorporating different sensory engagements in museum display, and accommodating multiple audiences.

After an opportunity to see the current exhibition there will be four presentations:

Anita Herle, ‘Exploring the body in the arts, social and bio-medical sciences’:

How do we know, experience and create different bodies? How have different bodies been imagined, known and acted upon in different times, places and disciplinary contexts? This presentation will examine the creative potential and challenges associated with curatorial techniques of assemblage and juxtaposition.

Mark Elliott, ‘Putting the pieces together: negotiating parts and wholes in Assembling Bodies’:

Exhibits about the measurement, classification and distribution of bodies highlight ways in which fragments, measurements or representations can ‘stand’ in for larger categories or entities, such as body, type, or human. This paper considers how the curators negotiated the relationship between parts and wholes, highlight the contingency as well as the potency of some of the technologies that make bodies visible.

Jocelyne Dudding, ‘Shifting images: Using ‘anthropometric’ photographs in museum display’:

This paper discusses the historic use of ‘anthropometric’ photography in the collecting and classifying of information of human bodies. It explores how anthropometric methods of photography were followed in some instances, and resisted or ignored in others, why other photographs were recontextualised and used as ‘anthropometric’, and how contemporary artists have responded to such classification.

Bonnie Kemske, ‘Capturing the Embrace: a sculptural engagement with Merleau-Ponty’s ‘lived experience’:

The inclusion of ceramic ‘hugs’ in Assembling Bodies challenges the dominance of the visual within exhibitions, makes us question our perceptions, and leads us to a more engaged understanding of personal relationships to art. Capturing the embrace as ‘cast hugs’ engages the body’s sense of touch as a way to merge the body as subject with the sculptural object: ‘… not the thing on its own, but the experience of the thing.’ [Merleau-Ponty 1962]

Admission is free, but spaces are limited. Mail to reserve a place. If it wasn’t for the damned carbon footprint I would be tempted to fly Easyjet Cph-Stansted-Cph for a one-day trip. Why not videocast the presentations?

Brug og misbrug af medicinhistorie (og anden videnskabshistorie)

By Biomedicine in museums

En lidt forsinket påmindelse om årsmødet i Nationalkomiteen for Videnskabshistorie og Videnskabsfilosofi, der bliver afholdt i Århus 15. – 16. januar på temaet “Brug og misbrug af videnskabshistorie – med særlig henblik på undervisningen”.

Naturvidenskabernes historie (inkl. teknologiens, medicinens og de matematiske fags historie) bliver produceret såvel som anvendt. Blandt de der anvender eller forbruger videnskabshistorie er naturligvis videnskabshistorikerne selv, men der er mange andre forbrugere. Således spiller videnskabshistorie, ofte i en eksemplarisk form eller med en legitimerende funktion, en stor rolle i videnskabsfilosofien og den dukker også op i forskningspolitiske sammenhænge. Desuden spiller den en noget upåagtet men dog vigtig rolle i dele af den videnskabelige forskning selv, fx i form af analogier der skal retfærdiggøre eller perspektivere ny videnskab.
En særlig rolle spiller videnskabshistorien i den højere undervisning (gymnasie- og universitetsniveau), hvor den direkte eller indirekte indgår i både den faglige undervisning og i mere tværfaglige sammenhænge. Almen studieforberedelse (AT) på gymnasierne og Fagets Videnskabsteori på universiteterne er vigtige eksempler på sidstnævnte. Hvordan og hvorfor optræder videnskabshistorien i undervisningen?
Hvordan og i hvilket omfang bør den indgå? Hvor hører den hjemme?
Videnskabshistorien kan have en positiv funktion i undervisning og andre sammenhænge, men den har det ikke automatisk. Den kan bruges såvel som misbruges, og misbrug er ikke ukendt. Det kendes fra bl.a. politiske og religiøse sammenhænge, men også fra videnskabelige. Hvilken form for videnskabshistorie er rimelig og legitim at bruge, og hvilken er ikke – et sådant spørgsmål er vigtigt at rejse og diskutere.

Helge Kragh ( vil gerne have forslag til 30 minuters oplæg i næste uge. Se mere på

Museums as graveyards for dead objects (rather than echo rooms for talking objects?)

By Biomedicine in museums

Last year we had a discussion on this blog (see here and here) about whether objects ‘talk’ — no, they don’t! But do they ‘die’?

The UCL-based Autopsies group (associated with Film Studies) suggests they do. The group runs a cultural studies project called “Autopsies: The Afterlife of Dead Objects” to explore this morbid issue. Here’s how they reason about the ‘death’ of objects:

Just as the twentieth century was transformed by the advent of new forms of media—the typewriter, gramophone, and film, for example—the arrival of the twenty-first century has brought the phasing out of many public and private objects that only recently seemed essential to ‘modern life.’ What is the modern, then, without film projectors, typewriters, and turntables? How has the modern changed as trolley cars disappeared and hot air balloons were converted into high-risk sport rather than the demonstration of national pride in science and a crucial tactical mechanism of wartime? But what will our twenty-first century entail without mixmasters, VCRs, or petrol-driven automobiles? Does the ‘modern’ in fact program the death of objects? What is the significance of death for things that live only through such a paradoxical program of planned obsolescence? How can cultural historians and theorists participate in the reflection on the ends of objects, from their physical finitude to the very projects for their disposal, the latter increasingly of concern with the multiplication of things that do not gently decompose into their own night.

In other words, what the Autopsies project actually tries to do is to reflect on the life course and ultimate fate of the material things we associate with ‘modernity’ — and dressing this up in the metaphor of ‘death’.

The ‘death’-metaphor might be useful. For example, I guess you could say, in some cognitively productive sense, that science, technology and medicine are huge modern technoscientific systems for the production of dead things. Because the perpetual quest for creativity, innovation and progress, by definition as it were, continuously kills off ideas, concepts, theories, methodologies, instruments and practices of the near past, turning them into a dead objects — dead scientific objects, dead technologies, dead medical instruments, dead diagnostic procedures and dead therapeutical regimes. The killing of living objects and parallel production of dead objects is an inherent necessary side-effect of the innovation machinery. 

I don’t think the ‘death’ metaphor radically changes the way I look at objects. But it nevertheless introduces a slightly different angle to the way I understand science, technology and medical museums — from being repositories of cultural heritage, they can be seen as graveyards for dead scientific, technological and medical objects.

And for some reason I like the idea of conceptualising medical museum objects as ‘dead objects’ better than the notions of ‘talking objects’ and ‘evocative objects’ (that said, ‘madeleines’ is my favourite metaphor).

(thanks to Haidy Geismar for the tip about the Autopsies project)

Dansk Medicinsk-historisk Selskabs Studenterpris 2009

By Biomedicine in museums

Som tidligere år uddeler Dansk Medicinsk-historisk Selskab en studenterpris til den bedste medicin- eller helsehistorisk opgave (i bredeste forstand), der er blevet bedømt i løbet af 2009. Prisen er på kr. 10.000. Alle opgaver, der er bedømt på en universitetsuddannelse, kan indleveres (men ikke specialer, de vil jo udkonkurrere alle andre slags opgaver 🙂  Såvel den studerende som vejlederen kan tilmelde opgaver. Frist for indsendelse er 31. december 2008. Læs mere på selskabets hjemmeside.

A private museum of historical medical artefacts on the web

By Biomedicine in museums

Like most other kinds of historical artefacts, medical objects from the past are scattered all over. Some are safely deposited in museums, small or large; others are in private collections; others again are circulating between private collectors, mediated by eBay and other auction services (and some, especially plastic objects from contemporary medicine, are contributing to landfill).

Whereas most public collections are online, most private are not. An inspiring exception from this internet invisibility of private collections is Donald Blaufox’s Museum of Historical Medical Artifacts. Working as a professor in nuclear medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University Dr. Blaufox has spent much of his spare time in the last thirty years building up a collection of medical artefacts “that could serve as a nidus for a museum of medical history as evidenced by the objects that contributed to its development”.

Some objects “were acquired simply because they have some medical significance, others for their beauty, but all of them because they help to understand the evolution of medicine over the centuries”. He didn’t have the ambition to transform it into a public museum, but entertained the idea of prodcuing a catalogue in book form instead. Then, two years ago, he decided to go online. Now the web-based MoHMA contains over 1000 objects representing a wide range of medical practices and of craftsmanship.

Nicely and competently curated and beautifully represented in images, the MoHMA website is yet another example of how important private collectors have been, and still are, for the preservation and communication of the material medical heritage.

Poem about Medical Museion's collections

By Biomedicine in museums

I tried Microsoft’s Bing for the first time today and googl… sorry, binged ‘Medical Museion’ — and to my great surprise I found this poem dedicated to our collections written by American editorial consultant Shannon Hunt, titled ‘In the Collection of the Medical Museion’:

The plaster busts of aged geniuses
adorn the storage room. They look a bit bereft
in their current situations, dispersed
on shelves and on the floor, turned face to face,
no space to best display their cast coiffures
and noble Roman noses carved with care.
Were the material a match, they might
appropriate some miscellaneous
components of a nearby skeleton
and, fashioning a makeshift catapult,
propel themselves to a more comfortable
repose. But wary of the brittleness
of paupers’ bones unearthed some centuries
ago, and fully conscious of their own
fragility, they bide their time,
await a label, a chance to be seen.
(Copenhagen, September 2007)


Thanks for this Shannon!

An 'unknown' Norwegian dentistry collection celebrates its 125th birthday

By Biomedicine in museums

I’m probably not the only person who has a soft spot for unknown collections, especially if they turn out to be rich and reasonably well-curated.

Today I became aware of the odontological collection at the University of Oslo, which goes back to the 1880’s when the Norwegian Dentists Association began acquiring objects; it was handed over to the Norwegian State Institute of Dentistry in 1915 and was later taken over by the Odontological Faculty of the University of Oslo. Parts of the collection is displayed in a hallway in the faculty headquarters (above).

For the last 12 years, parts of the collection has been registered by a group of retired Norwegian dentists — and so far they have put 2266 objects online. See all the objects here. The search function of the database is not without problems and the quality of the descriptions and images is variable at best — but what a great artefact material!

Reminds me that we need to do something about our own in-house odontological collection — so many things to do, so many holes to fill out (pun intended).

Between meaning culture and presence effects: contemporary biomedical objects as a challenge to museums

By Biomedicine in museums

An online-version of Adam’s, Camilla’s and my essay “Between meaning culture and presence effects: contemporary biomedical objects as a challenge to museums” is now available on the website of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

The acquisition and display of material artefacts is the raison d’être of museums. But what constitutes a museum artefact? Contemporary medicine (biomedicine) is increasingly producing artefacts that do not fit the traditional museological understanding of what constitutes a material, tangible artefact. Museums today are therefore caught in a paradox. On the one hand, medical science and technologies are having an increasing pervasive impact on the way contemporary life is lived and understood and is therefore a central part of the contemporary world. On the other hand, the objects involved in medical diagnostics and therapies are becoming increasingly invisible and intangible and therefore seem to have no role to play as artefacts in a museum context. Consequently, museums are at risk of becoming alienated from an increasingly important part of contemporary society. This essay elaborates the paradox by employing Gumbrecht’s (2004) distinction between ‘presence’ and ‘meaning’.

Wish I could put the direct author’s link to the full version here, but Elsevier will most probably sue me if I do — so alas you will have to access it in a pay version (Science Direct) here or through your local university library (which most probably will give you access to Studies through one of their many subscription packages).

The printed version in Studies won’t be out until December or so.

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