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June 2010

Medical history and the medical humanities between two reductionisms

By Biomedicine in museums

It’s hard to escape the impression that the humanities (including medical history, medical humanities, etc.) are living a wobbly existence, balancing on a fine line over the two abysses of social reductionism and biological reductionism. Are patients and their diseases social constructions or bags of biochemical reactions? Do these reductionist trends have any room left for the kind of books reviewed in the TLS ?

A forthcoming conference at the University of Copenhagen 16-17 September on ‘The Humanities Between Constructivism and Biologism’ will “explore the options for a coherent conception of Man as neither a mere biological species, nor a mere social construction. It is a conception of Man as both a producer and a product of history and culture, and thus as a shaper of himself”.

Not an entirely new or radical conception, I guess, but it deserves being repeated as an antidote to the two usual reductionisms (and I should remind the organisers that some women also feel they should be included in this coherent conception :-):

Humanistic studies as traditionally conducted are currently under pressure from two sides within academia itself: On one side, by a constructivist stance, which declares man to be a social construction. This robs the humanities of the natural focal point of their activities, the study of Man, and leaves them as an odd motley of disciplines with no unity and no shared vision. From the opposite side, the humanities are under pressure from evolutionary biology, which has no reservations about accepting the existence of such a thing as Man, who after all is a natural, biological species among others. In combination with affiliated approaches within neurophysiology and cognitive science, evolutionary psychology purports to explain every aspect of man’s behavior as a result of his genetic inheritance, as manifested in his brain and other cognitive apparatus. This leads to a heavily reductionist picture of man.

Speakers include: Ronald Schleifer (University of Oklahoma), Steve Fuller (University of Warwick), Robert Markley (University of Illinois), Nikolaj Zeuthen (University of Aarhus), Torben Kragh Grodal (University of Copenhagen), Finn Collin (University of Copenhagen), and Jan Faye (University of Copenhagen). Shall be interesting to see what position the unpredictable Steve Fuller will take on this!

No registration is needed. For complete programme and location, contact David Budtz Pedersen:

Which are the most unnecessary science, tech and medical museums in the world?

By Biomedicine in museums

Travel guides and leisure sections in the newspapers regularly list museums you just “must” see. But I’ve never actually seen a list of museums that I’m supposed to be discouraged from visiting.

Until now — here’s one that covers “the most unnecessary museums in the United States”: 

The Museum of Bad Art: The justification for this one was thin at best when it launched in the early 1990s, but at this point, it’s safe to say that the Internet’s a much better repository of terrible and useless art. Why not use this building to showcase, you know, good stuff?
The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health: Case in point: This website is devoted to the history of menstruation, for those who just can’t live another month without knowing what tampons were like in the 1940s. Totally random and completely unnecessary.
The Washington Banana Museum: It’s a museum. About bananas. Any money you spend getting here is money you deserved to lose.
Frank and Jane Clement Brick Museum: It’s literally rooms filled with old bricks. And just in case you want to pop in on a lark, it’s “by appointment only.” I guess brick fans are hardcore people.
The Cockroach Hall of Fame and Museum: If you’ve ever wanted to see dead roaches posed in a variety of scenes and costumes, this is the place. Seriously, though: How is there a demand for this kind of thing?
Leila’s Hair Museum: Started by a former hairdresser, this Missouri museum is devoted to hair, and features rows and rows of hair wreaths in frames. More than a little creepy.
The Hammer Museum: I refuse to believe there are enough different types of hammer — you know, a stick with a weight on the end — to justify the existence of an entire museum dedicated to their history. There are more than 1,500 hammers on display at Alaska’s Hammer Museum, which is 1,499 more than you need to know about.
The Giant Shoe Museum: It’s not a giant museum of shoes; it’s a museum of giant shoes. Dedicated to oversized footwear, this oddball museum in Washington ranks as one of the most superfluous in the country.
Kansas Barbed Wire Museum: I am sure that the proprietors of this barbed wire museum are wonderful people, but there is no more unnecessary field trip for local schools than a day spent looking at old hunks of twisted metal.
National Mustard Museum: This Wisconsin museum has been around for a quarter century, during which time nothing about mustard has changed at all. It’s still yellow and made for hot dogs. That’s it.
Bergstrom-Mahler Museum: Don’t let the vaguely normal name fool you: This museum is devoted to paperweights of all shapes and sizes. Pretty? Sure, if that’s your thing. But a museum dedicated to hunks of glass and metal used on coffee tables is a bit much.

(Quoted from here).

Good idea. There must be many more around the world. But — on the other hand — what’s “unnecessary”? Some of these museums actually sound quite interesting. Full of curiosities. Curiosities themselves. So maybe this is the list of museums I’d really like to visit when I get to the US next time 🙂

So please make our day — send us nominations for the most unnecessary science, technology and medical museum (globalwise).

Philosophical reflection on medical technology in museums has got a new publication outlet

By Biomedicine in museums

Namely the new journal Philosophy & Technology, which “aims to publish the best research produced in all areas where philosophy and technology meet”.

The editors welcome “high-quality submissions, regardless of the tradition, school of thought or disciplinary background from which they derive”, etc.

The range of coverage is pretty broad and interdisciplinary — original approaches to classic problems in philosophy of technology, theories of technology, methods and concepts in technology, etc- — and particular attention is paid to new areas of philosophical interest:

such as nanotechnologies, medical, genetic and biotechnologies, neurotechnologies, information and communication technologies, AI and robotics, or the philosophy of engineering – and the philosophical discussion of issues such as environmental risks, globalization, security, or biological enhancements.

So all us who philosophise about medical technology, science communication and the aesthetics in museums now have a perfect outlet for our urge to publish in peer-reviewed journal in addition to this and other blogs.

Om den æstetiske formidlingsform — sanser og poetisk oplevelse på Medicinsk Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

Nynke Birgitte Genee, kandidatstuderende i dansk på KU, skrevet for en tid siden en opgave på kurset i kurset ‘Anvendt museologi’ med titlen ‘En sanselig og poetisk oplevelse af biomedicinen: om den æstetiske formidlingsform i udstillingen i det medicinskhistoriske museum Medicinsk Museion’. Kurset fokuserede på det tekstlige niveau i udstillinger, især genstandstekster, men man arbejdede også med narratologi som metode til at analysere udstillingers æstetik. Vi har fået lov at gengive Nynkes opgave her:

  • Indledning
  • Den refleksive udstilling
  • Ny museologi
  • Analyse af udstillingen Del og Hel
  • Mellem kunst og videnskab
  • Den narrative og den poetiske model
  • Fra deskriptiv til berettende fremstillingsform
  • Et flerperspektivisk blik på biomedicinen
  • En sanselig udstillingsoplevelse
  • Vurdering
  • Konklusion
  • Litteraturliste


Genstanden for denne opgave er udstillingen Del og Hel. Brudstykker fra biomedicinens tid vist på det medicinskhistoriske museum, Medicinsk Museion, i perioden juni 2009 til april 2010. Udstillingen bliver af museet selv betegnet som en “materielt og visuelt eksperimenterende udstilling” . Den canadiske kunstner Martha Flemming har fungeret som udstillingens hovedkurator. At en kunstner har været inde over udstillingen, har sat sit tydelige præg på udstillingens koncept og formidlingsform, der ikke er traditionel videnskabelig, men æstetisk funderet. Den æstetiske formidlingsform, mener jeg, anvendes ikke blot som middel til at nå ind til biomedicinen, men også til at sætte museets egne udstillingsmetoder i fokus. I forlængelse heraf kan man kalde Del og Hel en metaudstilling eller en refleksiv udstilling. Den refleksive udstillingsform, som sætter sig igennem i udstillingen, lader sig i stigende grad spore i flere moderne vestlige museer. I dansk sammenhæng kan bl.a. nævnes Det Kongelige Biblioteks skitseudstilling Everything you think of is true fra 2008/2009, kurateret af kunstner og teaterinstruktør Robert Wilson, eller Københavns Bymuseums legetøjsudstilling StorbySpilopper fra 2009/2010, kurateret af værten fra børnetime på DR1, Shane Brox. Kendetegnende for begge udstillinger var deres iscenesættelse af genstandene i et eventyrligt, næsten disneyagtigt univers. Med æstetikken i fokus synliggjorde udstillingerne deres egen ramme som værende et formgivende element i hele udstillingen.

Med udstillingen Del og Hel som genstand vil jeg i denne opgave undersøge, hvordan æstetikken kan bruges som indgangsvinkel til videnskaben. Jeg vil se på, hvordan udstillingen igennem dens blanding af æstetik og videnskab kan være med til sætte nye perspektiver på videnskaben og således bidrage til dannelsen af ny betydning. At blande to distinktive områder som æstetik og videnskab med hinanden kan have en frugtbar indvirkning på forståelsen af udstillingens genstande, men bliver æstetikken for markant, kan den også lede opmærksomheden væk fra indholdet. Dette ser jeg som en fare ved den æstetiske formidlingsform, som også kommer til udtryk i Del og Hel. Et andet aspekt ved opgaven vil således også være at undersøge, hvor den æstetiske formidlingsform har sine begrænsninger. De to nævnte undersøgelsesområder kan således samles til det, der skal udgøre opgavens overordnede spørgsmål: hvorledes er den æstetiske formidlingsform med til at ‘åbne’ henholdsvis ‘lukke’ for genstandenes betydning?
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Scientometrics — a contemporary Sword of Damocles hanging over biomedicine

By Biomedicine in museums

Scientometrics is a Sword of Damocles hanging over anyone who wants to come to fame and fortune in the field of biomedicine. Coming of age (it’s exactly 50 years since Eugene Garfield started publishing Science Citation Index, now Web of Science), methodologies for the alleged quantitative measurement of ‘scientific excellence’ have proliferated in the last decade — promoted by national science agencies who want to get knowledge value for tax money.

Nature magazine has just published a fairly balanced special issue on the phenomenon, its pros and cons (especially the cons), but also about the difficult trade-off between real, qualitative peer-review evaluation and the fact that the armamentarium of scientometrics after all is there to be used by science bureaucracies. See all the links to the editorial and feature articles here

One question that nobody seems to ask is: Why would a clever young man or woman today go into science with the risk of having such Swords of Damocles hanging over your head?

If I were an intelligent, creative high-school student today, and had the choice between an unsecure job in an increasingly tightly metrically regulated work culture (as science is turning into) and a career in a field where quantitative measures of performance are meaningless (like most of the arts in the wide sense), I would definitely chose the latter — even if it meant less conventional social status.

Is that why the smartest kids I meet all tend to be in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts?

Does matter matter?

By Biomedicine in museums

We’d love to see a long meeting series under the title “How Matter Matters: Objects, Artifacts and Materiality in X Studies”, where X could be alternatively Science Studies, History of Science, History of Medicine, History of Technology, etc. But first out was “Organization Studies” — to take place 16-18 June, 2011 on the Greek island Corfu. More info here.

Workshop 'Contemporary biomedical science and medical technology as a challenge to museums' — preliminary programme

By Biomedicine in museums

Here is the preliminary programme for the workshop “Contemporary biomedical science and medical technology as a challenge to museums” (15th biannual meeting of the European Association of Museums for the History of Medical Sciences), to be held in Copenhagen, 16-18 September, 2010.

The presentations below have been selected by the programme committee (Ken Arnold, Wellcome Collection, London; Robert Bud, Science Museum, London; Judy Chelnick, National Museum of American History, Washington DC; Mieneke te Hennepe, Boerhaave Museum, Leiden; and Thomas Söderqvist, Medical Museion, Copenhagen) in dialogue with the secretary of the EAMHMS (James Edmonson, Dittrick Museum, Cleveland).

Preliminary programme:

Sniff Andersen Nexø (Dept of History, University of Copenhagen):

Suzanne Anker (School of Visual Arts , New York):
“Inside/Out: Historical Specimens through a 21st Century Lens”

Kerstin Hulter Åsberg (Dept of Neuroscience, Uppsala University):
“Uppsala Biomedical Center: A Mirror and a Museum of Modern Medical History”

Yin Chung Au (Planning and Coordination Centre for Developing Science Communication Industry, National Science Council, Taiwan):
“Seeing is communicating: Possible roles of med-art in communicating contemporary scientific process with the general public in digital age

Adam Bencard (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen):
“The molecular body on display”

Caitlin Berrigan (independent artist):
“Improvising Glycoproteins: A case study in artistic virology”

Danny Birchall (Wellcome Collection, London):
“Medical London and the photography of everyday medicine”

Silvia Casini (Observa – Science in Society, Venice):
“Curating the Biomedical Archive-fever”

Judy M. Chelnick (Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History):
“The Challenges of Collecting Contemporary Medical Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution”

Roger Cooter (Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, UCL) and Claudia Stein (Dept of History, University of Warwick):’
“Visual Things and Universal Meanings: Aids Posters, the Politics of Globalization, and History”

Nina Czegledy (Senior Fellow, KMDI, University of Toronto):’
“At the Intersection of Art and Medicine”

John Durant (MIT Museum):
“Prospects for International Collaboration in Collecting Contemporary Science and Technology”

Joanna Ebenstein (The Observatory, New York):
“The Private, Curious, and Niche Collection: What They can Teach Us”

Jim Edmonson (Dittrick Museum, Case Western Reserve University):
“Collection plan for endoscopy, documenting the period 1996-2010”

Jim Garretts (Thackray Museum, Leeds):
“Bringing William Astbury into the 21st Century: the Thackray Museum and the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology in partnership”

Victoria Höög (Dept of Philosophy and History of Science, University of Lund):
“The Optic Invasion of the Body. Naturalism as an Interface between Epistemic Standards in Biomedical Images and the Medical Museums”

Karen Ingham (School of Research and Postgraduate Studies, Swansea Metropolitan University):
“Medicine, Materiality and Museology: collaborations between art, medicine and the museum space”

Ramunas Kondratas (independent scholar; formerly Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History):
“The Use of New Media in Medical History Museums”

Lucy Lyons (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen):
“What am I looking at?”

Robert Martensen (Office of History & Museum, NIH):
“Integrating the Physical and the Virtual in Exhibitions, Archives, and Historical Research at the National Institutes of Health”

Stella Mason (independent scholar):
“Contemporary Medicine in Museums: What do our visitors think of our efforts?”

René Mornex and Wendy Atkinson (Hospices Civils de Lyon, Université Claude Bernard Lyon1):
“A large health museum in Lyon”

Jan Eric Olsén (Dept of History of Ideas, University of Lund):
“The displaced clinic: healthcare gadgets for home use”

Kim Sawchuk (Dept of Communication Studies, Concordia University):
“Bio-tourism into museums, galleries, and science centres”

Thomas Schnalke (Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum):
“Dissolving matters: the end of all medical museums’ games?”

Morten Skydsgaard (Steno Museum of the History of Science, Aarhus University):
“Boundaries of the Body and the Guest: Art as a facilitator in the exhibition The Incomplete Child”

Sébastien Soubiran (Jardin des Science, Université de Strasbourg):
“Which scientific world would we like to depict in a 21st century university museum?”

Yves Thomas (Polytech Nantes) and Catherine Cuenca (Université de Nantes and Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris):
”Multimedia contributions to contemporary medical museology”

Maie Toomsalu (Medical Collections, University of Tartu):
“Visitor studies at the Medical Collections of University of Tartu”

Henrik Treimo (Norsk Teknisk Museum, Oslo):
”Invisible World: Visualising the invisible parts of the body”

Alex Tyrell (Science Museum, London):
“New voices: involving your audience in content creation”

Nurin Veis (Museum Victoria, Melbourne):
“How do we tell the story of the cochlear implant?”

Final titles will be announced after the revised/extended abstracts have been submitted by Monday, 2 August.

The workshop starts Thursday, 16 September at noon and ends Saturday, 18 September at 5 pm.

Sessions will be held at Medical Museion and in the Danish Museum of Art and Design. The two meeting venues are situated close to each other in central Copenhagen.

The format of the workshop is informal. In order to focus on discussion and intellectual exchange, each accepted abstract will get a maximum of 8 (eight) minutes for oral presentation, followed by a longer discussion. Extended abstracts (2-5 pages) will be distributed to all registered participants in late August.

The workshop is open to registered participants only. Due to space limitations, we have to impose a first register/first serve policy for attendance.

For details about registration, bank transfer, hotel bookings, special needs, etc., see

For inquiries about the academic programme, please contact the chair of the programme committee, professor Thomas Söderqvist, Medical Museion, or +45 2875 3801.

For inquiries about the venue, accommodation, registration, bank transfer etc., please contact the secretary of the local organizing committee, Ms Anni Harris, or +45 3532 3800.

The workshop is organized by Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen (;

Acquisitioning is the life-blood of museums

By Biomedicine in museums

Soraya de Chadarevian (history of science, UCLA) came by this afternoon for a short and informal visit on her way to Lund and Gothenburg. Soraya went on a quick tour around the museum and afterwards we had a short chat in the meeting room — especially about collecting contemporary biomedicine.

Which made me think of Robert Anderson’s (former British Museum director) dictum that “acquisitioning is the life-blood of museums“. Not collections, not exhibitions, not research — but acquisitions. The active process of bringing new material stuff into museums is both the prerequisite of new interesting exhibitions and a source of new ideas and questions for research.

We used to rely on ‘garbage days’. Maybe it’s time to formulate a more comprehensive acquisitioning programme?

Does the hyperlink destroy our ability to focus on the text?

By Biomedicine in museums

The social web is almost by definition centered around the hyperlink. One of the attractions with blogging is the possibility to sprinkle hyperlinks all over the text. Is there a drawback? Oh yes, says Nicholas Carr:

Sometimes, they’re big distractions — we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

I don’t know which studies Carr is referring to, because he doesn’t hyperlink — but intuitively I think he’s right.

He adds that one of the remedies may be to put the links at the end of the text (like end notes in an article).

Bioephemera is (temporarily?) closing down

By Biomedicine in museums

Bioephemera is (temporarily?) closing down. As Jessica says, “everything is ephemeral – including bioephemera”. She has met “many wonderful fellow bloggers and faithful readers through the blog”, but keeping it going has become “a significant investment of time that I just don’t have … I need to refocus on work, life, and art”. Hopefully Jessica will return. Online life will be poorer without her thoughtful comments. Good luck with your work, life and art!