Skip to main content
Monthly Archives

March 2010

Open the sluice gates for contemporary collecting!

By Biomedicine in museums

A couple of days ago, I argued against Christian Sichau’s restrictive acquisition policy for museums of science, technology and medicine. I suggested, not only to actively promote the acquisition of visual, material, and textual objects from contemporary laboratories and storage rooms, but indeed to open up the sluice gates for collecting as much contemporary stuff as possible.

An optimistic ‘‘Yes, please’’ policy is nicer and wiser than a pessimistic ‘‘Nein’’ policy.

My argument is based on my experiences from Medical Museion’s integrated research and curatorial program ‘‘Biomedicine on Display’’. The program was launched in 2005 with the explicit intention to lay the research foundation for the acquisition and public outreach of the visual and material culture of late twentieth century and contemporary biomedicine — a time period which so far has been very sparsely represented in museums of science, technology, and medicine.

During the past four years we have run a number of research projects on a variety of aspects of late twentieth century and contemporary biomedicine. Parallel to these research projects, we have set up a series of exhibitions with more or less explicit connection to contemporary science (‘Oldetopia’, ‘Design4Science’, ‘Eye Catchers and Swagger Images’, ‘Split + Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine’, ‘Primary Substances: Treasures from the History of Protein Research’, and ‘Healthy Aging’).

These research projects and exhibitions have been more or less closely associated with the collection of a large number of recent artefacts from laboratories and hospitals in the Copenhagen region. Some artefacts were chosen to satisfy the needs of the exhibitions, others were unsolicited donations from university laboratories, hospital clinics, and pharmaceutical and medical device companies.

We have an acute lack of space and certainly do not have enough professional curatorial staff to take care of everything properly. Registration is constantly lagging behind. Nevertheless we rarely say ‘‘No’’. In some concrete cases we have, with some trepidation, done so, but not as a general policy. Why?

Basically, I suggest, because a ‘‘Yes, please’’ policy opens up a whole array of fruitful interactions between museums and practitioners of science, technology, and medicine. Indeed, it promises to change the way science, technology, and medical museums place themselves in relation to the rest of the university.

Instead of seeing the university museum as a closed repository for exquisite objects guarded by professional curators, a ‘‘Yes, please’’ policy is an open invitation to every single researcher, technician, and student at the university to become adjunct curators of their own heritage.

Sichau is right in the sense that museums will never be able to employ enough professional curators to describe, register, and evaluate every single artefact and image in the university’s laboratories and storage rooms. But with the help of our colleagues in science, technology, and medicine, we can create a distributed curatorial expertise.

In the next post, I will discuss the notion of ‘distributed curatorial expertise’ further.

(this is the third part in a series of posts about the participatory museum and distributed curating was  brought yesterday — see the first part here and the second part here. To be continued)

Illness in context — textual interpretations of illness

By Biomedicine in museums

On several occasions we have had the pleasure to organise events together with Scandinavian literary scholars Frederik Tygstrup (Copenhagen) and Knut Stene-Johansen (Oslo); for example, Frederik spoke at the opening of our temporary exhibition ‘The Face of Disease’ (Sygdommens Ansigt) in 2006, and Knut sat on the committee that evaluated Adam Bencard’s PhD-thesis in February 2008 (and I’ve been giving a seminar on ‘presence effects in contemporary biomedicine’ in Oslo).

Knut and Frederik organised a Nordic research network called Infectio, which has resulted in a couple of meetings and now also an anthology titled ‘Illness in Context’ on Rodopi, which focuses on the literary perspectives of medicine and illness:

The reading practices highlighting the clinical, phenomenological and archeological approaches to illness take as their point of departure the living text, that is, the literary experience mediated and created by the text. Literature is seen not solely as a medium for the representation of experiences of illness, but also as a historical praxis involved in the forging of our common understanding of illness. In contrast to traditional literary analysis – primarily oriented toward the interpretation of the literary work’s meaning – the project will emphasize description and understanding of how literature itself performs as a means of interpretation of reality.

More here.

New acquisitions — no thank you, or yes please?

By Biomedicine in museums

In an article titled ‘Einstein, interaktiv und zum Anfassen. Oder: die drohende Auflösung des Museums?’ in NTM: Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin (vol. 17, 85–92, 2009), Christian Sichau has argued for a severely restrictive attitude to new acquisitions.

He develops his argument for a next-to-zero collecting policy in opposition to a short appeal made by the historian Klaus Hentschel in Physik Journal in March 2008 (‘Bitte nicht wegwerfen! Allzu oft werden Quellen der Physikgeschichte achtlos entsorgt, statt sie zu sichern’). Here Hentschel gave a chilling example of the accidental destruction of some of the important sources for the history of early German solid state physics. Hentschel called on physicists to be more aware of their heritage, and asked them to contact archives and museums before throwing out older material of any kind.

Sichau takes Hentschel’s appeal as his point of departure for articulating a deliberately pessimistic position. Because there is very limited space available in museums, the daily routine for curators is to reject, rather than accept, new objects. Furthermore, contemporary objects are not spectacular enough for exhibitions; they neither give us clues to the historical past nor relate to what goes on at the frontiers of science, technology, and medicine today. Finally, the need for public outreach more often than not trumps the need to preserve the heritage, and today’s exhibitions tend to rely rather on dramatic multimedia than objects anyway. So even if there may be good scholarly reasons for collecting objects, ‘‘werde ich als Kurator ‘Nein’ sagen müssen’’, concludes Sichau.

If I had agreed with Sichau’s arguments, I would never have devoted so much energy to trying to represent the material culture of contemporary science, technology, and medicine. I have chosen to focus Medical Museion’s efforts — our research, our acquisitioning activities, and our public outreach — precisely on late twentieth century and contemporary medical science and medical technology, and I have come to rather different conclusions than Sichau.

All museum people are familiar with the problems that Sichau is confronting, and I can easily understand why he expresses such defeatist views. I too believe that the acquisitioning and keeping of contemporary science instruments and artefacts is a very demanding task for museums, especially university museums. The current cultural and political climate places university museums uncomfortably between, on the one hand, a museum logic that favors the creation of spectacular public shows and events and, on the other hand, the prevailing logic of university departments, which is to publish as many often-cited scholarly papers in high-ranked journals as possible.

Today’s university museum is placed somewhere between these two entrenched logics. This borderline position is problematic, because curating scientific instruments, technological devices, and medical artefacts does not necessarily lead either to popular blockbuster shows or to a steady flow of articles in high-impact journals. Acquiring and curating material artefact, image, and document collections all too easily becomes a neither-nor; an unspectacular and invisible activity resulting in insignificant publications in low-ranked journals.

In contrast to Sichau, I am not pessimistic, because I believe these problems occasion a number of interesting challenges: intellectual, logistic, and political (see Söderqvist and Bencard 2008; Söderqvist, Bencard and Mordhorst 2009). I see opportunities rather than obstacles. I therefore believe that we should, as a rule, say ‘‘Yes, please’’ when we get a chance to collect visual, material, and textual objects from contemporary laboratories and storage rooms. I suggest that we should even, in Hentschel’s spirit, actively promote the acquisition of such objects. In other words, not only should we not be restrictive, we should indeed open up the sluice gates. An optimistic ‘‘Yes, please’’ policy is nicer and wiser than a pessimistic ‘‘Nein’’ policy.

In the next couple of posts I will explain why this position is not as naïve as it sounds. See next post here.

Söderqvist, T. and Bencard, A., 2008. Making Sense or Sensing the Made? Research into Presence Production in Museums of Science, Technology and Medicine. In: G. Cavalli-Björkman and S. Lindqvist (eds), Research and Museums, Stockholm, 161–173.

Söderqvist, T., Bencard, A. and Mordhorst, C., 2009. Between Meaning Culture and Presence Effects. Contemporary Biomedical Objects as a Challenge to Museums, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 40, 431–438.

(the first part of the series of posts about the participatory museum and distributed curating was  brought yesterday — to be continued)

How shall science, technology, and medicine museums handle the problem of new acquisitions?

By Biomedicine in museums

The journal NTM: Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin is currently running a series of articles about university collections and museums. These articles raise a number of interesting issues, which are otherwise rarely brought up in discussions about the historiography of science, technology, and medicine.

In nr 4/2008, Anke te Heesen (Tübingen) pointed to the often forgotten fact that university collections are an integral part of many fields of university research and teaching; this active role of the collections in these primary functions of the university is therefore an important parameter to take into account when developing acquisition and exhibition agendas for university museums.

In the following issue (nr 1/2009), Christian Sichau (Deutsches Museum in Munich) warned against the rapidly deteriorating political, intellectual, and economic status of traditional curatorial work in collections; this is a serious long-term threat to museums because the current trend towards blockbuster exhibitions and event culture—even in science, technology, and medical museums—undermines the role of the museum as a space for the preservation of the heritage and the acquisition of new artefacts.

In the latest issue (nr 1/2010) Thomas Schnalke (Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum), largely ignores the question of collections, artefact curating, and new acquisitions in favour of an inspiring discussion about the potentially great role of museum exhibitions in science communication, both internally in the university and externally for a larger general public.

All three authors have long-term experience from the science, technology, and medical museum world. Together, their contributions provide an excellent platform for future discussions about the role of collections in museums in general and in university museums in particular, and therefore I thought I would give my views on these interesting issues (my article will be published in nr 1/2010; a slightly different version of the manuscript is brought on this blog in a series of blogposts in the next two weeks).

I will I restrict myself to an important question brought up by Sichau—and which neither te Heesen nor Schnalke pays much attention to—viz, how science, technology, and medicine museums should handle the problem of new acquisitions. How should they manage the steadily growing output of scientific, technical, and medical artefacts, documents, and images from offices and research laboratories?

Should they at all try to catch up with the perpetual tsunami of potential collection items? Should they try to bring in almost everything, or should they restrict themselves to samples (and if so, what are the rules of the sampling game)? Should they have a global focus or should they concentrate on objects produced and/or used in the local university (and if so what does ‘locally produced’ and ‘locally used’ actually mean in a world with increasingly globalised knowledge and artefact production)? Or should museums let the event logic of their outreach staff determine what to collect, so that they bring in an electron microscope only if an exhibition on microscopy is in the pipeline—and refuse to accept it if the outreach people plan for an obesity show instead?

(to be continued, see here)

Are science museums and science centers taming the thrill of science by imposing their museological agendas?

By Biomedicine in museums

Measured by the number of incoming emails and RSS-feeds, the big news in the science museum world today is a critical article by Edward Rothstein (“The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas”) in the Arts Special section of yesterday’s New York Times.

A century ago, Rothstein points out, museums were simply collections of objects: “And science museums were collections of objects related to scientific inquiry and natural exploration. Their collections grew out of the ‘wonder cabinets’ of gentlemen explorers, conglomerations of the marvelous.”

Rothstein loves the old collection-oriented museums (so do I, and so do my emailing and RSS-feeding friends and colleagues). One of his favourites is the partly dispersed collection of Henry Wellcome, which includes “moccasins owned by Florence Nightingale, Napoleon’s toothbrush, amputation saws, an array of prosthetic limbs, a Portuguese executioner’s mask, Etruscan votive offerings and obstetrical forceps”.

“You look at such collections”, writes Rothstein, “and sense an enormous exploratory enterprise. You end up with an enlarged understanding of the world’s variety and an equally enlarged sense of the human capacity to make sense of it”.

But over the last two generations, the scientific objects have largely been replaced by politics, educational aims and curatorial experimental ambitions: “the science museum has become a place where politics, history and sociology often crowd out physics and the hard sciences. There are museums that believe their mission is to inspire political action, and others that seek to inspire nascent scientists”. Museums have become agenda-driven.

Although I disagree with Rothstein’s lumping together of science museums and science centers (in my view these have very little in common), I believe he has a point. All of this museological experimentation may, says Rothstein, “be a sign of the science museum’s struggle to define itself”.

But defining itself to what identity? Rothstein is looking forward to some unforseeable “brilliant transformations of the science museum model” — hoping that “today’s rampant experimentation with exhibition styles might eventually yield a new model as yet unimagined”.

Not entirely unforeseeable though. Rothstein places some hope with exhibitions like those in Boston’s Museum of Science, for example a “remarkable 19th-century collection of finely wrought glass models of sea creatures” which becomes part of an exhibition about modeling “and its importance to the pursuit of play, fashion and science”.

In another BMoS-exhibition, “the museum’s animal specimens are joined with a mineral collection, vintage dioramas and other artifacts to explore the nature of collecting and categorizing”; a third example is the revamped 1961 exhibit “Mathematica” (created by Charles and Ray Eames); its “exploration of abstraction was inspiring to a young boy who saw it long ago; it remains a touchstone”.

All three exhibitions “explain important concepts about how science is done while displaying extraordinary objects and spurring new ways of seeing — all without pressing viewers into a particular program”.

I fully understand Rothstein’s wish to get the thrill of science back in the museum (whether museum or science centre). He is waiting for Jesus the Curator to come to the Museum Temple Place and throw all the paraphernalia and extravaganzas out, and restore the simple virtues of a science museum: science, objects and principles.

Well, to me that sounds like an agenda — another one than the prevailing populist agenda indeed, but it is still an agenda. I don’t think you can avoid agendas by letting the science and the objects somehow speak for themselves. The question is rather what kind of agenda you want.

Using refurbishment as an occasion for museums to rethink their outreach

By Biomedicine in museums

Ilke Kocamaz, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, has an interesting point on the Material World blog today.

Taking Malraux’s notion of the ‘museum without walls’ as her a point of departure, Kocamaz reminds us that the museum as a concept is not dependent on any particular place or time — and then relates this to the process of rebuilding, refurbishment and rebranding that museums undergo now and then.

Her point is that such refurbishment processes are both a time of crisis and an opportunity for museums, because they have to somehow continue their activities without losing their customers. She gives the example of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter (UK):

While being shut down, the museum takes its collections to many different interest groups and keeps its relationships up and running with them. The museum is becoming ever more immaterial, using the Internet and other technological sources and extending its boundaries to become a global player.

In other words, the museum is using the refurbishment process as an opportunity to find new ways of relating to the public, instead of being restricted to the usual local audience.

So what conclusion can we draw from the RAMM example? What about refurbishment perpetual beta?

Is this the death of the science/medical museum collections as we know them?

By Biomedicine in museums

Nanowerk reports that researchers at the Micro and Nanosystems Department, Instituto de Microelectrónica de Barcelona have recently demonstrated that it is possible to produce and place small silicon chips inside living HeLa cells by means of different techniques, like lipofection, phagocytosis or microinjection. 90% of the cells remained alive and healthy for a week.

We’re talking about quite ordinary (but extraordinarily small) silicon chips that are made of a normal semiconductor material and produced by usual manufacturing methods. The chips can be used as intracellular sensors and the possibilites are endless — e.g., characterization, quantification and IRT monitoring of molecular processes at the single cell level.

This sounds like a promising route for molecular medicine. But it’s a potential nightmare for future medical museum curators. Good old steampunk medicine was about surgical instruments that operated on the level of visible organs. Now we’ve got a double problem: not only do we have to collect and preserve invisible cell-lines, but also take care of their invisible chips. 

Does this mean the end of medical museum collections as we know them? Has anybody got a good idea for how to collect, preserve and display these creatures?

You are more likely to be right if you are somebody who shows a little doubt about something

By Biomedicine in museums

By chance I just found the wonderful exchange below in the Minutes of Evidence of the House of Lords (i.e., the upper house of the British Parliament) Select Committee on Economic Affairs meeting of 14 February. It’s the record of the examination of witnesses on the state of public health research and its importance for the health of the population (don’t ask why I read this kind of stuff 🙂

The Lords have called Richard Peto, famous Oxford professor in medical statistics and epidemiology, to the stand. First Lord Skidelsky asks some questions about the epidemiological evidence behind the risks of smoking, and then Lord Vallance of Tummel (sic!) brings up the question of hospital acquired infections:

Sir Richard, I wonder if I may change the subject a little bit because you have already answered the question I was going to ask on smoking en passant. Could we move on to hospital acquired infections.

To which professor Peto answers:

I have been fairly useless on the previous questions and I am probably going to be even more useless on this.

Replies Lord Vallance of Tummel:

That is fine. Do not think that because you are being useless it is not helpful.

To which the Chairman adds:

You may take some comfort from the fact that with some people who are very assertive about what they believe we are not very convinced they are right either. We think you are more likely to be right if you are somebody who shows a little doubt about something.

Words of wisdom — stumbled upon in the minutes of a Select Committee of the House of Lords.

Contemporary biomedical science and medical technology as a challenge to museums

By Biomedicine in museums

Just a reminder about the meeting in Copenhagen 16-18 September — on the challenge to museums posed by contemporary developments in biomedical science and medical technology.

How do museums today handle the material and visual heritage of contemporary medical and health science and technology? How do curators wield the increasing amount and kinds of more or less intangible and invisible scientific, medical and digital objects? Which intellectual, conceptual, and practical questions does this challenge give rise to?

We’re aiming for two intensive days with visually enhanced presentations, good discussions and excellent food in beautiful surroundings.
Read the full call here. Further information here. Send proposals for presentations, panels etc. to, not later than Monday 29 March.

Program committee: Ken Arnold, Wellcome Collection, London; Robert Bud, Science Museum, London; Judy Chelnick, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.; Mieneke te Hennepe, Boerhaave Museum, Leiden; Thomas Soderqvist, Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen (chair).

Idiosyncracy as a museological virtue

By Biomedicine in museums

Nina has a point — her favourite museums are idiosyncratic. There are lots of “perfectly nice, perfectly forgettable” museums, but those that stick in one’s memory are those with individuality, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology. They are often small, because they are not run by committees, and the staff is passionate about what they are doing.

Yet, as Nina points out, most small idiosyncratic museums strive to become bigger and more mainstream rather than remain small, quirky and passionate and cultivating their idiosyncracy. She gives four reasons for this:

Funders and potential donors tend to look for particular benchmarks of professionalism (appropriately), and few are comfortable funding the most risky or content-specific institutions.

As money gets tight, museums look for exhibits, program strategies, and revenue streams that are “proven” by other institutions’ successes, rather than charting their own potentially risky path.

Many museums no longer employ in-house exhibit developers, relying instead on a short list of contractors and consultants. Design firms’ projects often have a common look across different cities and institutions.

Small museums, which are most likely to cultivate local, distinctive voice and approaches, often have an inferiority complex. Rather than asserting their uniqueness, they try to emulate large museums.

Science centers are among the worst. They have, Ninas suggests, three additional reasons for homogeneity:

The audience cycles frequently as families “age out.” Institutions may feel less of a need to offer something unusual or distinctive if the audience will keep refreshing every few years.

The content is often seen as not being community-specific. Science is science, and grocery store exhibits are grocery store exhibits. Funders like the NSF have encouraged science centers in particular to share their techniques and evaluations, which is fabulous but also leads to rampant and sometimes unthinking imitation.

These museums have undergone the fastest growth in the industry in the past thirty years. There is a big business of selling exhibits, copies of exhibits, and exhibit recipe books, and many individuals who start new institutions rely almost entirely on these vehicles to fill their galleries.

I certainly share Nina’s love of idiosyncratic institutions — and I can certainly see the risk of becoming bigger and more established. Can we keep the passion even though we are slowly growing?