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Monthly Archives

February 2010

Saving the 'papers' of 21st century science for future historians

By Biomedicine in museums

Besides the preservation and display of the contemporary medical heritage, one of my major research interests is the methodology of writing the history of contemporary science (see, e.g., The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology (1997) and The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology and Medicine: Writing Recent Science (with Ron Doel, 2006)).

Now I am beginning to think about a third volume in the ‘series’ to catch up with new trends in science historiography. One of the most interesting issues — both from a museological and historiographical point of view — is how historians should deal with the growing avalanche of scientific digital documents.

I.e., how to preserve, utilise, and make sense of the enormous output of digitalised desk and laboratory data for the writing and displaying of contemporary history of science? Not just gigabytes of text documents (like manuscripts, electronic lab notebooks and emails), but also terabytes of quantitative experimental data — not to forget digitalised images and material things that embody such data (such a microarrays and biobanks).

Our guest blogger Martin Fenner wrote a very inspiring post about digital preservation a few weeks ago. “It’s surprising”, Martin concluded, “that we have barely started to think about digital preservation”.

Another scholar who has thought about the problem is university archivist and library administration scientist Christopher Prom, currently a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar at the Centre for Archive and Information Studies, University of Dundee.

Prom is giving a talk here in Copenhagen next Thursday (4 March), titled “Preserving the ‘Papers’ of 21st Century Science”, in which he will review the current state of work in preserving digital records and provide some suggestions regarding methods and tools that archives and others stakeholders can use to make sure that the electronic record of the 21st century will be accessible also in the 22nd. Here’s his abstract:

We cannot understand the full impact of scientific work without access to the correspondence, notes, and other materials that scientists generate on a daily basis. But how, in the digital era, can we best preserve the ‘papers’ generated by scientists? Such records are stored as mere electronic impulses, distributed across many locations, and written in formats that cannot be rendered without machines and software. As a result, rich historical sources, such as correspondence in email format, are at risk. Recent events in East Anglia demonstrate that such records are susceptible to hacking and misrepresentation in the short term. In the long term, they may be even more susceptible to loss through corruption or neglect.

The venue for Prom’s talk is the Niels Bohr Institute, Blegdamsvej 17; it starts at 2.15 pm. Copenhagen historian of physics Finn Aaserud organises the event.

Is academic job application attachments on YouTube the new trend?

By Biomedicine in museums

We’re just about to announce two new faculty positions here at Medical Museion — which raises the perennial problem of how to select the best candidates from dozens or more written applications. Seeing and hearing a person in live action often says more than thousands of words and an impressive CV. That’s why we interview selected applicants. But interviews are time-consuming and cost travel money for those involved.

The solution may be YouTube. Just read on The Scholarly Kitchen that Tufts University has now embraced the YouTube generation. Tufts’ official admissions criteria read:

Share a one-minute video that says something about you, upload it to YouTube or another easily accessible website, and give us the URL. What you do or say is totally up to you.

The videos are purely optional, but about 6% of 15,000 applicants submitted them.

Well, I’m afraid our university is not prepared to use this method for job applicants yet. But wait another couple of years …

When is research a waste of time?

By Biomedicine in museums

The most relevant academic question this year is asked by Paul Glasziou (Centre for Evidence-Based medicine, Oxford University), who gives a talk with this title in the Institute of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, on Monday 15 March, at 10am (Øster Farimagsgade 5, room 15.3.15). The talk is based on his and I. Chalmers’s article ‘Avoidable waste in the production and reporting of research evidence’, which was published in Lancet two years ago (vol. 374, 86-89).

Medicine 2.0 in a historical perspective

By Biomedicine in museums

I’m thrilled by the fact that an historian of medicine (Richard Barnett of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge) will chair a panel debate on health care in the digital age (taking place in Cambridge, UK, on Thursday) — it sustains the tendency that historians of medicine are becoming more engaged in contemporary debates about the health care system; and almost always for the better.

Titled ‘Saved by SMS’, the panel debate is about a worldwide healthcare system in crisis and the future prospects of bringing health care practitioners and patients into the digital information age:

From tracking malaria drugs in the developing world by SMS, sharing information about disease outbreaks via social networking sites, to empowering patients and doctors to share diagnosis and treatment ideas, significant changes to the digital and social infrastructure of the global healthcare system could revolutionise the way we look after own health, and other peoples.

Bertalan Meskó (Science Roll) and others have been instrumental in putting medicine 2.0 on the agenda. Historians of medicine and medical museum could play a much more active role in these crucial discussions. The fact that Richard Barnett will chair the meeting on Thursday is a good sign — hopefully he will also infuse some historical perspective into the discussion.

Hybrids between science, visual art, poetry and theatre

By Biomedicine in museums

The Thackray Museum in Leeds is hosting an interesting meeting organised by artist Paul Digby on Saturday 20 March. Titled ‘Hybrid’ it gathers a group of interesting thinkers and practicioners on the interface between art and science:

Siân Ede (Arts Director at the UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and author of Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts) will talk about ‘Light echoes in art and science’:

A light echo is a phenomenon observed in astronomy and is produced when a sudden burst of light is reflected off a source, arriving at the viewer some time after the initial flash. Investigative approaches in art and science have little in common but co-exist in the same human context and may unwittingly reflect each other’s thought processes and imagery. In this talk I will venture to explore how far images in contemporary art and science reflect each other’s aesthetic and epistemological currencies.

The philosopher Mary Midgley will speak about ‘Science and poetry’:

Science and Poetry are not rival concerns competing for our attention. They are complementary aspects of our lives. The same imaginative faculties forge both of them, providing the basic structures round which they grow. In every age, scientists need to have a suitable guiding vision, a vision which is adapted both to new data and to changes in the background culture. Some of the visions which are still thought of as central to modern science – e.g atomism and mechanism – were actually forged in the seventeenth century and have become in some ways, unsuitable for the thinking which has since developed. We need to attend to these visions and keep them up to date.

Then James Peto (Senior Curator at the Wellcome Collection) will talk about ‘The culture of medicine: exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection’:

Since the Wellcome Collection opened two years ago, its exhibitions have covered such diverse subjects as the relationship between medicine and warfare; what we understand – or imagine – is happening in our brains and bodies while we sleep; how artists and scientists have grappled with the question of human identity; the history of our understanding of the anatomical and symbolic role of the human heart; the relationship between mental illness and the visual arts in Freud’s Vienna. Showing examples from exhibitions which have been shaped by artists and scientists in equal measure, James Peto will discuss how the Wellcome Collection approaches science as part of culture, rather than as something separate.

And finally Mike Vanden Heuvel (author of Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance: Alternative Theater and the Dramatic Text) will give talk on ‘To Infinity, and Beyond!’ Can Theatre Play with Science?’

Given the recent appearance of a number of well-received plays with scientific themes, characters, and metaphors, it is no surprise that critical discourse is just beginning to assess the quality and accomplishments of science plays. A leading spokesperson for one critical approach is Carl Djerassi, an award-winning chemist who, after retiring from academia, has published a number of plays on science themes (Oxygen; An Immaculate Misconception). As well, Djerassi has become a respected polemicist for adjudicating which plays belong to the category of what he terms “science-in-theatre.” In my paper I explore some ramifications of Djerassi’s assumptions, focusing on how they position theatre and performance as a mirror held up to the nature that a given science proposes. I argue that such expectations have led a good deal of playwrights to pursue a strategy of “veracity” in their presentation of scientific themes (using Frayn’s Copenhagen as a readily-recognizable example). In contrast to these assumptions, I present the work of less-known playwrights and theatre devisers (such as Luca Ronconi) whose strategy is rather one of what I term “variety” – “theatre-in-science,” to reverse Djerassi’s formulation. In their work, theatre and performance are recognized, and celebrated, for their ability to warp the mirror of scientific veracity and to awaken imaginative responses that still honor complex scientific ideas (such as Ronconi’s Infinities, created in collaboration with the cosmologist John Barrow). In my conclusion, I interrogate the consequences of what I consider a too-heavy investment of science-in-theatre at the expense of theatre-in-science, considering how art/science collaborations are normally funded and for what purpose they usually come into being.

Limited number of seats — contact Paul Digby,, for more information.

(thanks to Lucy for the tip)

Memoirs about disability

By Biomedicine in museums

Just saw that Thomas Couser‘s new book Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Living has been published by Minnesota University Press.

According to the blurbs Couser explores “the extensive number of personal narratives by or about persons with disabilities” and “brilliantly demonstrates through synoptic readings, [how] these works challenge the ‘preferred rhetorics’ by which such narratives are usually written”. Looks like an excellent backdrop to our current plans for making the recently acquired collection of disability images from the Hans Knudsen Hospital available on the web. Read more here.

(By the way, Couser is just now writing a book titled ‘How Memoir Works: A Reader’s and Writer’s Guide’ — could be an inspiration for our current work on the generation of material collections as personal memoirs.)

Keeping the biomedical heritage is all about the preservation of plastic

By Biomedicine in museums

Contemporary biomedicine is full of plastic artefacts — from disposable gloves and syringes in the clinic to microwells and pipettes in the research lab.

It’s materials and objects which make the preservation of the contemporary biomedical heritage for future generations pretty tricky. The short course ‘The Problem with Plastics’ given by Helen Alten at The Northern States Conservation Center last week would have been quite useful for the conservation tasks in medical museum like ours.

Maybe somebody would like to arrange a similar course for conservators in Europe?

Museerne i fremtidens kulturelle landskab — en undersøgelse

By Biomedicine in museums

Kunstmuseet Arken laver pt. en spørgeskemaundersøgelse for at finde ud af, hvordan museerne kan sikre sig en central position som aktive medspillere i fremtidens kulturelle landskab. Dvs. spørgsmål som:

  • Er de danske museer på omgangshøjde med den kulturelle udvikling?
  • Hvilke særlige oplevelser kan museerne tilbyde i informationssamfundets brede vifte af oplysnings- og underholdningstilbud?

Undersøgelsen (som er støttet af KUAS) udføres i dialog med danske museer og en række eksterne parter som Getty Research Institute, Getty Leadership Institute, Courtauld Institute, Tate, Københavns Universitet, Århus Universitet m.fl. Den skal munde ud i en rapport og derefter et seminar på Arken i maj 2010.

Her er Arkens følgebrev, hvor de skriver om baggrunden til undersøgelsen:

Museerne og det kulturelle landskab, som de eksisterer i, har ændret sig markant de seneste 20 år. Bevægelsen fra mono- til multikultur, nye undervisningsformer, ændringer i medievaner og forbrugsmønstre samt demokratiseringstendenser, der bringer traditionelle hierarkier og autoriteter under pres, er blot nogle af de faktorer, der stiller nye krav til museerne. De ændrede vilkår kræver, at museerne opdaterer deres selvforståelse i forhold til den omgivende virkelighed.

Samtidig er museerne blevet en markant spiller i oplevelsesøkonomien. Det danske museumsvæsen står i en overgangsfase, hvor museerne bevæger sig i retning af at være dynamiske udbydere af kulturoplevelser. Ifølge Danmarks Statistik havde de danske museer i 2008 10,6 mio. besøgende. Der er altså stor søgning til museerne, men hvad er det, museerne i fremtiden skal tilbyde de mange gæster? Det er af afgørende betydning at spørge til, hvilken rolle museet skal spille i det 21. århundrede; hvordan involverer man offentligheden i museet, og hvordan tjener museet bedst offentlighedens interesser?

Undersøgelsen gælder det samlede danske museumsvæsen og har derfor et bredt fokus på de kunst- natur- og kulturhistoriske museer. Undersøgelsen har et klart tværfagligt sigte og vil bl.a. behandle det potentiale, der kan ligge i innovative samarbejder på tværs af museumskategorier. Dens særlige opmærksomhedspunkter vil være museumsledelse, forskning og formidling. Et fokuspunkt vil desuden være behovet for at nytænke selve museumsoplevelsen ud fra et øget fokus på brugeren.

Som det er nu, er det primært universiteterne, som udvikler teorierne om museets rolle i samfundet. Her har man dog sjældent berøring med den praktiske virkelighed, som museerne navigerer i. Undersøgelsen vil udnytte museumsinstitutionens unikke placering mellem teori og praksis for at sikre et resultat, der sammentænker en teoretisk funderet kulturanalyse med de praktiske erfaringer, som museerne ligger inde med. For at sikre denne synergi vil undersøgelsen inddrage både universitetsforskere og museumsfolk, nationalt og internationalt.

Og her er spørgsmålene (om et par dage vil jeg poste mine svar her på bloggen):

  1. Hvad er museumsvæsenets vigtigste opgave i fremtiden?
  2. Hvad vil være den vigtigste udfordring inden for fremtidens museumsledelse, og hvordan bør museerne agere i forhold til denne udfordring?
  3. Hvad er den vigtigste udfordring inden for indsamling og bevaring i fremtiden, og hvordan bør museerne agere i forhold til denne udfordring?
  4. Hvordan ser du forskningens rolle på fremtidens museum, og hvad kan museerne gøre for at styrke deres forskning?
  5. Hvad er museumsinstitutionens største potentiale i forhold til publikum og formidling, og hvordan udnytter museerne bedst dette potentiale?
  6. Hvilke fremtidige udviklingsmuligheder ser du inden for kuratering af særudstillinger, og i hvilke retninger bør museerne nytænke deres udstillingsformater?
  7. Hvad er den vigtigste fremtidige udfordring i forhold til økonomi og administration, og hvordan bør museerne agere i forhold til denne udfordring?

Contemporary bodies — new technologies, new collections

By Biomedicine in museums

A few months ago, I advertised the meeting ‘KörperGegenwart, neue Technologien, neue Sammlungen’ to be held at the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, 22-24 April.

Now the program has been finalised — and it looks very good! After a plenary discussion on ‘Schauplätze der Schönheit: Klinik, Kunst, Medien und Museen’ on Thursday evening, there follows two days of presentations, most of which seem to be very relevant for the future of medical and science museums:

  • ‘Körperspuren im Deutschen Hygiene-Museum. Strategien und Objekte’ (Susanne Roeßiger, Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden)
  • ‘Auf Biegen und Brechen. Zur (In)Formierung des Körpers’ (Stefan Rieger, Ruhr-Universität Bochum)
  • ‘Der Körper und seine Teile. Vom Präparat zum transplantierten Organ’ (Katrin Solhdju, Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Berlin)
  • ‘Vom Körper zum Maß. Zur Geschichte der Konfektionsgrößen’ (Daniela Döring, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
  • Vermessene Menschen. Vom Fingerabdruck bis zum Ganzkörperscan’ (Erika Feyerabend, BioSkop-Forum zur Beobachtung der Biowissenschaften e.V.)
  • ‘Prothesen exponieren. Sichtbarkeiten neuer Technologien’ (Karin Harrasse, Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln)
  • ‘Design in der Orthetik. Innovative Prinzipien der Körperanformung’ (Andreas Mühlenberend, resolutdesign; Hochschule Magdeburg-Stendal)
  • ‘Wie sieht der bionische Mensch aus?’ (Friedrich Ditsch, Technische Universität Dresden)
  • ‘”It’s a Material World”´: Situiertheit, Verkörperung und Materialität in der neueren Robotik’ (Jutta Weber, Universität Bielefeld)
  • ‘Von der Nasen- zur Gesichtstransplantation: Zur Geschichte und Zukunft der kosmetischen Chirurgie’ (Sander L. Gilman, Emory University, Atlanta)
  • ‘Science Fashion´: TechnoNaturen und deren alltagskulturellen Umdeutungen im System der Mode’ (Elke Gaugel, Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Wien)
  • ‘Wie kommt die Seele ins Museum? Medizinische Museen und das Transzendentale’ (Robert Bud, Science Museum, London)
  • ‘Den biomedizinischen Apparat ausstellen: Materialität und Digitalität in “Split + Splice” (Kopenhagen)’ (Susanne Bauer, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
  • ‘Die Schärfung des Blicks. Kunstinterventionen in anatomischen Sammlungen’ (Ingeborg Reichle, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften)
  • ‘Körperwissen in der Kunst’ (Ute Meta Bauer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston)

As you can see, all presentations are in German — so the germanophilically challenged may have problems.

More here and here.