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Monthly Archives

May 2011

Madness and museums — collecting and exhibiting the history of psychiatry

By Biomedicine in museums

Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry Through Collection and Display (Routledge Research in Museum Studies)“While much has been written on the history of psychiatry, remarkably little has been written about psychiatric collections or curating”, says the back-cover of Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry Through Collection and Display, edited by Catharine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon.

A first sketch to a comparative history of collections of psychiatric objects, the volume, which will be published by Routledge in August, investigates collectors, collections, displays, and the reactions to exhibitions of the history of insanity.

Unfortunately, it’s limited to museums in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK, but that’s a good start — we’re eagerly waiting for a sequel treating the many rich psychiatric museum collections in continental Europe.

Analysing museums beyond the national framework

By Biomedicine in museums

In small ethnically homogenous countries like Denmark, Poland and Finland, there is a thick aura of nationalism around museums. For that reason alone, the planned conference on ‘Transnational History of Museums’, 17-18 February 2012 seems like a relief.

Organised by the Institut für Kunstwissenschaft und Historische Urbanistik at TU-Berlin, the aim of the conference is to go beyond the national framework in analysing the museum institution:

Temple of muses, custodian of cultural heritage, site of memory, space for the mediation of taste and knowledge: The functions of the museum are manifold and are given different emphases, depending on the type of museum and the disciplinary outlook. However, the argument that the institution is a major venue for the construction of national identity has recurred again and again since the first royal collections were opened to the public around the middle of the eighteenth century. Indeed, the number of museum foundations was particularly high in Europe during the nineteenth century, when the modern nation-state was being established. Yet the tight linkage between nation-building and the birth of public collections has increasingly been called into question by recent scholarly work on the history of museums. Instead, local traditions have been stressed or international comparisons have been drawn upon in order to explain policies of collecting, the display of exhibits or the architectural design of individual galleries.

The planned conference will reflect from a transnational perspective upon the purposes and concepts of museums, museum practices, and the perception of museum culture:

  • Which models from abroad were imported by museum representatives in order to give their own collections a certain profile?
  • To what extent were “foreign” principles of order and hanging appropriated?
  • Can the international networks on which museum experts relied be reconstructed?
  • How can we describe the activities of commissions that were assigned to explore the organisation of museums beyond their geographic borders?
  • Did an internationally inspired taste have any influence on the planning, the architectural settings or the compositions of collections?
  • Do documents such as letters, travelogues or diaries written by museum visitors give concrete indications of a comparative, transnational perception?

Central to the conference is the discussion of the museum as a space of, even product of, cross-border processes of exchange and transfer. Seen from this angle, an examination of the museum of art, in particular, is to be carried out, also taking into account archaeological and historico-cultural collections, arts and crafts museums and the so-called universal museums inside and outside of Europe.

The conference will be held 17-18 February at TU-Berlin. Short proposals (approx. 150 words) for papers not exceeding 30 minutes should be sent by 15 June to Bénédicte Savoy ( or Andrea Meyer ( Be prepared to listen to contributions in German and French as well 🙂

New metaphors for sci-tech-med museums

By Biomedicine in museums

A couple of years ago, Camilla Mordhorst and I were playing with the idea that the museum was like a blog. What would Medical Museion be like of it was modelled on Biomedicine on Display?

I thought about our discussions when I read Mia Ridge’s report from the recent Digital Communication and Heritage meeting at Nordiska Museet in Stockholm. She says, among other things:

I was thinking about new metaphors for museums – what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a café, a study space, a mobile showroom?

So what if Medical Museion was an operation theatre? A GP waiting room? An IVF clinic? A café for medical students? A meeting space for patient organisations? Or a showroom for medical device producers?

Things in culture, culture in things

By Biomedicine in museums

Thing afficionados still have a week left to consider an abstract for the conference ‘Things in culture, culture in things’, to be held at the University of Tartu, Estonia, 20-22 October, 2011 — three days about things in culture, cultures in things “and lest we forget, all that stuff in between”.

The call for papers claims that “since the groundbreaking publication of Arjun Appudurai, ed. The Social Life of Things (1986) to the launch of the Journal of Material Culture a decade later, “the material world in its cross-cultural, multi-temporal and interdisciplinary study could never quite be the same again”: objects, artefacts and matter, “even sometimes the immaterial”, have been theorised and contextualised in lots of case studies. And in contrast to the usual jargon of ‘thing agency’, this call for papers takes a more sober position — things are “endowed with agency”, which is an entirely different ‘thing’:

A well known adage in this field of enquiry is that things make people as much people make things. The relationships we develop and share with a tangible arena of artworks, buildings, infra-structures, monuments, relics and everyday objects varies from the remote to the intimate, from the fleeting to the durable, from immediate to mediated, from the passive to the passionate, from the philosophised to the commonsensical. Within the practices of creative processes and their use or non-use of the physical world, things gain meaning and status. They become endowed with agency, symbolism and power. Our journeys through the world of things generate a multitude of emotions: pleasure, attachment, belonging, angst, envy, exclusion, loathing and fear. They also feed into the propagation of on-going myths, narratives and discourses which oscillate between the robust and the ever shifting.

And here are the organisers suggestions for topics, i.e. everything about things is apparently of potential interest:

(i) Dynamics – Changing of meaning, practices, functions and modality in time and space
– displaying / collecting (museums, galleries and institutions);
– archaeological practice / how objects are made meaningful through their use;
– naming and renaming; assembling and dismantling;
– modality, mediation, remediation; (sources of) knowledge of things;
– innovation and technologies;
– biographies of things / life stories;
– recycling, reuse, waste, entropy, heritage.

(ii) Identity – Ways we relate to and use things
– identification / objectification;
– memory (memorials);
– cultural autocommunication;
– symbolic usage of things – heritage, monuments, rituals;
– consumption, consumerism / commodification;
– naming, narrating and silencing (or censoring) things;
– embodiment and things.

(iii) Methodologies – How we study things
– objects and subjects of research;
– material aspects of research / materiality of research;
– disciplinary and interdisciplinary methodologies;
– historiographical approaches;
– what things are – genres and types of things in different disciplines;
– historical epistemologies.

350 words abstract should be sent in by next Wednesday (1 June) to Monika Tasa, More info here.

Remembering Horace Judson, author of The Eighth Day of Creation

By Biomedicine in museums

Two weeks ago, friends and colleagues alerted me to Horace Freeland Judson’s recent death. I was amazed to hear he had already reached the age of 80. But then again, 20 years have gone since we first met in 1991-92.

Horace had received a major grant from the Mellon Foundation to write a history of immunology, and advertised for postdocs to do the basic research. I had finished my PhD a few years earlier and had just begun the preliminary archival work and interviews for my biography of Niels K. Jerne. What an opportunity to spend a year at Stanford doing research for my next book! I applied for the job and went to Baltimore in July 1991 for an interview at Horace’s homeplace.

I was duly impressed, both of the fact he had won a MacArthur Fellowship a few years earlier and of the magnificent palais he and Penny had bought on University Drive. I also thought quite highly of his magnum opus on the history of early molecular biology, The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), because it was so extremely well written and because he had made extensive interviews with most of the major players. His cosy relationship with Francis Crick loomed large in the book.

I immediately accepted Horace’s offer to spend a postdoc year at Stanford and so did Nic Rasmussen (now at University of New South Wales) and Craig Stillwell (now at Southern Oregon University). But with some trepidation. Most young and ambitious historians of science at the time were put-off by the fact that Horace wasn’t a professional historian of science (he never earned a Phd), but a ‘simple’ journalist with a bachelor’s degree. His had no interest in historical theory and method, he didn’t like philosophy of science and despised all kinds of science studies. We considered him a skilled but atavistic amateur.

When we arrived, we were told that the reason the project was placed at Stanford was that historians of science and medicine at Johns Hopkins hadn’t wished to host Horace, and that Stanford had welcomed him only because of the substantial overhead. I don’t know if this was true, but the Stanford Program in History Science faculty indeed kept him at arm’s length. Partly this was a matter of academic snobbery from the side of Peter Galison and Tim Lenoir and their students, but Horace’s vanity, mannerisms, and habit of addressing people in a magisterial, and sometimes even condescending, voice most probably added to the mutual dislike.

Yet Horace was a MacArthur ‘genius award’ recipient who had rubbed shoulders with almost everyone of importance in early molecular biology. And he wrote damn readable texts, much better than most historians of science could ever dream of. Horace was a very intelligent man, who thought highly of science and quickly absorbed the essentials of molecular biology. He had been a fellow bachelor student with Matthew Meselsohn (of Meselsohn and Stahl experiment fame) in Chicago and had met Max Perutz in England when working for Time Magazine in the late 1960s. Through Perutz he got acquainted with Francis Crick, and that’s how The Eighth Day of Creation started — indeed literally started: the opening lines about how he’s walking down the street with Crick is one of the most famous show-off anecdotes in the history of science.

During our initial discussions, Nic, Craig and I rapidly realised that Horace had received the Mellon grant to follow up on his DNA-story masterpiece with a sequel on the history of contemporary immunology. We knew this was an impossible project. Postwar immunology doesn’t have the same simple storyline as molecular biology. There is no overarching discovery story (like the double helix), no main central actors (like Watson and Crick). Postwar immunology is a historiographical mess, which is complicated even more by the intricate relations between basic immunology and clinical science.

As a consequence, Horace’s magnificent idea ended with a torso. Nic, Craig and I published quite a few papers — but there never came a book from Horace’s hands. His next grand scheme, the Center for History of Recent Science at the George Washington University, received an initial grant for five years but then collapsed because of lack of funding. And his planned book on the Baltimore affair was scooped by Dan Kevles (The Baltimore case, 1998), forcing him to produce a much less spectacular book (The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science, 2004) than originally conceived.

It’s easy to pass over Horace Judson as a vain, pompous, gossipy, self-absorbed person who happened to write one single successful book, followed by decades of barrenness. But those of us who came close to him saw another side. Whereas too many academics are selfish, aspergeric and nasty behind their smiling and convivial personas, Horace was the other way around. Despite his superficial vices, he could be a very generous person: he would spend hours and days reading and commenting on people’s writings and several of my colleagues testified to how much they’ve learned from his writing skills.

Horace was a deeply troubled man, whose bitterness increased after Penny’s much too early sudden death in pneumonia in the mid-1990s, but he could also be quite endearing and empathetic. I’ll never forget how, when my then wife arrived in the winter of 1992, she was neglected by everyone except Horace, who sent over a huge basket with fruit, cakes and a bottle of champagne on the night of her arrival (“she needs it after a 16 hour long transatlantic flight”, he said). He could have added that life needs to be lived with style.

All this is anecdotal history now. The bottom line is that Horace Freeland Judson wrote one of the most readable and insightful books so far published about the history of mid-20th century science. For this he will long be remembered.

(Read also Nathaniel Comfort’s eulogy on Horace Judson here; we discovered by chance yesterday that we were writing in parallell and decided to post simultaneously today).

New assistant professor in medical science communication at Medical Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

Let me take this opportunity to present another new member of staff — assistant professor Adam Bencard:

I started as assistent professor in science communication here at Medical Museion in November 2010. I have two major tasks: I’m doing research in experimental science communication and I make exhibitions. I’m particularly interested in material objects and the philosophical aspects of materiality and the meaning of artefacts in a science communicatioin context. I have a background in history and philosopy (MA, Roskilde University, 2001) and finished my PhD here at Medical Museion in 2008.

After defending his PhD-thesis ‘History in the Flesh’ in February 2008, Adam worked as a research assistant together with me and Camilla Mordhorst on the concept of ‘presence’ (resulting in, among other things, this article on biomedicine as a challenge to museums). Now he is moving deeper into the philosophical dimensions of material museum objects — those who read this blog may have noticed that Adam is the author of quite a few posts on subjects like ‘object oriented ontology’, ‘the material turn’, ‘existential materialism’, ‘the digital delusion’, etc.

Adam has been main curator of the exhibition The Chemistry of Life: Four Chapters in the History of Metabolic Research that opened in our satellite exhibition area in the main building of the Faculty of Health Sciecnes, and he is now working on yet another exhibition about the humoral vs. chemical body that is planned to open in mid-October.

Adam’s position is financed by a grant through the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research.

Internationalisering er meget mere end ICOM-komitteer

By Biomedicine in museums

danske ICOMs årsmøde i morgen, mandag den 23. maj skal man diskutere internationalisering i den danske museumsverden — noget som den siddende museumsudredning for øvrigt har lagt en hel del vægt på.

Danske ICOMs bestyrelse mener at den danske museumsverden allerede er kommet et godt stykke på vej med henblik på internationalisering og fremhæver i den forbindelse den kendsgerning at tre danske museumsansatte i 2010 er blevet udpeget som præsident for hver sin internationale komite, at en fjerde sidder i ICOMs øverste råd, og at der sidder danske museumsfolk i andre komiteers bestyrelser.

“Men vi kunne være mere aktive”, skriver bestyrelsen: “Hvordan kan vi styrke den danske deltagelse i de internationale komiteer og hvordan får vi mere udbytte af de danske ressourcer som lægges her?” Og for at få svar på disse spørgsmål har man inviteret fire af de komitee-aktive:

  • Jytte Thorndal, souschef på Energimuseet i Bjerringbro, præsident CIMUSET
  • Lisbet Torp, leder af Musikhistorisk Museum og Carl Claudius’ Samling ved Nationalmuseet, præsident CIMCIM
  • Bent Eshøj, prorektor på Konservatorskolen, vicepræsident i ICOM-CC
  • Ole Winther, Kulturarvsstyrelsen, med i bestyrelsen INTERCOM

til at præsentere deres kommitee-arbejde efter årsmødet.

Det er det jo sådan set ikke noget i vejen med. Men alligevel …

Ved at tage udgangspunkt i, hvordan man kan styrke repræsentationen af danske museumsansatte i forskellige ICOM-komiteer blir spørgmålet om den nødvendige internationalisering tonet på en i mine øjne lidt mærkelig måde.

For den mest interessante og på lang sigt mest gavnlige internationalisering sker jo ikke i diverse ICOM-komiteer, men i direkte arbejdsfællesskaber med andre museer og deres ansatte:

Ind- og udlån af udstillinger (som fx. da vi for et par år siden lånte udstillingen Design4Science og hovedkuratoren, Shirley Wheeler, kom over med et installationshold i et par dages tid).

Ind- og udlån av genstande (som fx. da vi lånte genstande ud til Wellcome Collections nye udstilling ‘Dirt’ og vores konservator rejste med over til London for at være med ved udpakning og opbygning).

Deltagelse i konferencer (som fx. da en række danske museumsansatte, herunder vores webmedarbejder Daniel, deltog i Museum and the Web-konferencen i Philadelphia i april).

Invitation af gæstekuratorer og gæsteforskere (som fx. når vi inviterede Martha Fleming som kurator af udstillingen Split & Splice).

Kurateringssamarbejde (som fx. når vi er partner i en EU-ansøgning om digitalisering af den videnskabelige og teknologiske kulturarv til Europeana).

Forskningssamarbejde (som fx. når vi er med i et internationalt samarbejde omkring ‘Collecting Genomics’).

Museumskommunikation (som fx. når vi laver en engelsksproget blog med en overvægt af ikke-danske læsere).

Det som kendetegner alle disse former for internationalt samarbejde er at de vokser ud af enkeltindividers initiativer, ikke ud af komite-arbejde, og at de foregår mellem enkeltpersoner og enkelte institutioner.

Det er som sagt ikke noget i vejen med ICOM-komiteernes arbejde, men man skal ikke glemme at den slags arbejde er sekundært i forhold til al den daglige internationalisering som sker på ‘græsrodsniveau’. Så det man burde diskutere på ICOM-årsmødet er ikke hvordan man styrker dansk deltagelse i ICOM-komiteerne, men hvordan man styrker internationalsering på medarbejderniveau.

Our new social web and biomedicine staff member

By Biomedicine in museums

I’m proud to present our new staff member, Daniel Noesgaard, who will work with biomedical science communication on the web, especially through social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc., and maybe especially the many forthcoming cetera).

Daniel’s position is financed by the science communication grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation through the new NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research (which I will tell more about on this blog later).

Daniel’s first task (besides attending the Museums and the Web 2011 conference in Philadelphia last month) is to work out a new web platform for Medical Museion that will have all the usual functionalities, but which will hopefully also integrate our blogs and our presence on social media into the site. When the platform is ready some time later this spring or early summer, he will begin to fill it with exciting content — and specially incite the rest of us and other users to make the site flourish.

Daniel has a Master’s degree in molecular biomedicine. For his Masters thesis he did laboratory work with lysine deacetylase inhibitors (see publication here) and their use for the treatment of type 1 diabetes. He has also worked in the internet business, where he worked with all possible kinds of things, from domain registration to network design, and has also done quite a lot of a voluntary work in a student association, including communication through social media.

Workshop on the sensuous object (smell and touch, ambience, aesthetic, visual thinking, tacit knowledge, sound and seduction), 29-30 September

By Biomedicine in museums

Our own Lucy Lyons and Anette Stenslund are organising a two-day workshop titled ‘The Sensuous Object’ here at Medical Museion, September 29-30.

‘The Sensuous Object’ is an interdisciplinary, participatory workshop concerned with ways we actually engage with objects and aimed at researchers in all disciplines interested in the materiality of actual artefacts and ways of understanding objects through the senses.

How we experience and understand objects as sensuous objects that have been realized, produced, consumed through and by our senses, and how they impact on us and how we impact on them, are just a few of the expected discussion topics. By inviting participants to choose actual objects and use them as central to their presentations, the aim is to challenge established concepts and reveal new possibilities in our experiencing of and understanding through objects, using sensuous approaches. It will provide opportunity for presenters to test ideas, try out new formats of presentation and discussion, and examine their own research through the sensuous object.

The idea for this workshop began as a way to research objects from Medical Museion’s collections and for the objects themselves to form the basis of further research. Medical Museion is a university museum at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen, with an extensive collection of historical medical objects from the 18th through 20th centuries and with internationally award-winning exhibitions. Its field is the history of health and disease in a cultural perspective, with a focus on the material and iconographic culture of recent biomedicine. Research at Medical Museion is seen as essential to underpinning university teaching strategies for collection and conservation of medical heritage, exhibition making, and other material-based communication practices.

Speakers are invited to present their understanding of an object in terms of their methodological approaches and areas of research. Research areas of confirmed participants include senses of smell and touch, ambience, aesthetic, visual thinking, tacit knowledge, sound, and seduction.

Confirmed speakers:
Laura Gonzalez (Glasgow School of Art)
Ansa Lonstrup (University of Aarhus)
Anette Stenslund (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)
Jan-Eric Olsén (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)
Carsten Friberg (Aarhus School of Architecture)

Postdoc Lucy Lyons ( and PhD student Anette Stenslund (, Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen, 18 Fredericiagade, Copenhagen (

More information:
If you are interested in presenting, please email a 200 word abstract by July 15, 2011. If you would like to participate but do not wish to present, please email a paragraph about your area of research by September 5, 2011.

The Sensuous Object workshop is free and Medical Museion will host lunch on both days and dinner on September 29. Participants will need to arrange and pay for their own travel and accommodation.

Further info from Lucy Lyons,