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August 2011

Mundane design vs. fine sci-art as two realms of aesthetic practice in science communication

By Biomedicine in museums

Here’s my abstract for a panel on the role of the humanities in science communication that Joan Leach in the Science Communication programme, U Queensland, is putting together for the PCST-12 meeting in Florence next spring:

Mundane Design vs. Fine Sci-Art: Two Realms of Aesthetic Practice in Science Communication
Sci-art has become an increasingly important dimension of science communication through printed media, museums, science centers and the web. Ranging from beautiful images on scientific journal covers to tissue-engineered wet-art installations, sci-art has become a recognised subgenre of the contemporary fine arts; it has entered art schools and caught the interest of gallery owners and art reviewers. It has also drawn the attention of major funding agencies, like the Wellcome Trust, as a means for strengthening public engagement with science. However, the popularity of fine sci-art risks eclipsing another, and perhaps even more important, realm of aesthetic practice in science and science communication, viz., mundane design (everyday aesthetics). In this presentation, I shall reclaim everyday aesthetics and the sensory qualities of research as a central aspect of science and, as a consequence, of science communication.

The full title of the proposed panel is ‘The Role of Humanities in Science Communication: Axiology, Epistemology, Aesthetics’, which connects nicely to the theme of the conference: ‘quality, honesty and beauty in science and technology communication’. It’s a great theme, very anti-mainstream-STS’ish! Besides me and Joan, Steve Fuller (Warwick) and Alice Bell (Imperial) are taking part. But, you never know if the programme committee likes this kind of approach or not. Let’s see. That said, the deadline for proposals is 30 September, and the final programme will be announced in January 2012.

What's the role of academic museums in today's Europe?

By Biomedicine in museums

There’s been quite a lot of noise about European university museums in the last couple of years. A lot of people are thinking about why and how the academic heritage should be collected, preserved and exhibited (to the right is one of the, our own Medical Museion in Copenhagen).

Now the University of Tartu History Museum (Estonia) will use its 35th anniversary celebration as an opportunity to throw a conference on 5-6 December, where the role of academic museums in today’s Europe will be discussed: “Who needs them and why, and how should academic heritage be exhibited?”

Most European universities possess rather impressive scientific collections – herbaria, minerals, anatomical preparations, instruments, etc. The traditional and initial role of these collections – to support studies and research – is decreasing in the virtual era. This has forced museums to look for new ways to use these collections, mainly to popularise science and introduce the history of universities. However, these collections are often problems for universities, as they take up a lot of room and need maintenance, which universities cannot afford. Many universities have tried to get rid of their collections, some have even managed to take or buy them back. Stocktaking of collections has been used to get rid of spoilt items.

Developing a more attractive exhibition strategy is one of the biggest challenges of museums dealing with academic heritage. They immediately face a number of questions when trying to approach this. Do we exhibit entire collections or just samples? How much will we use modern technical aids? Who are the most important target groups of these museums? How can we communicate the scientific ideas that are hundreds of years old in a manner that is understandable? Creating associations with modern times helps to understand, but it also carries the threat that we project past ideas that didn’t actually exist. How can we connect the work of science historians with the museum?

The role of museums that deal with the history of science and education and their meaning in society also depends on the broader cultural policy. How do the various forms of ownership affect the use and preservation of academic heritage? Would it be better for universities to own their museums or to transfer them to the state, local government, a foundation or other private owners with all their assets, and what would each of these options entail? How can the contribution of university museums to the development of modern society be increased?

The research director of the museum, cultural historian Lea Leppik, who organises the conference, is looking for interesting 25 min-presentations. Send 300 word abstracts to her ( before 1 October. There is no participation fee, but you’ll have to pay for your travel and accommodation in Tartu. The working languages of the conference are Estonian (!) and English.

European anatomical collections network initiative

By Biomedicine in museums

Great initiative! Elena Corradini at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy) and Marek Bukowski at the Museum of the Medical University of Gdansk (Poland) are proposing a European Anatomical Collections Network.

Elena and Marek’s idea is to launch a joint European program for the preservation, handling, and availability of
anatomical collection based on contemporary best practice in the field (the image to the right is from one of our temporary anatomical exhibitions in 2008):

They are going to present the project at the UMAC (University Museums and Collections) meeting in Lisbon in September, but as a starter they would like curators of anatomical collection around Europe to respond to a survey, with questions like:

Type of collection (anatomical and/or pathological and/or curiosity collection); date of foundation; founder’s name and collection providers and managers throughout history; primary venues (separate cabinet in University, palace or court, part of anatomical theater, etc.); researchers connected with collection; famous objects; description of kinds of objects; conservation strategy; availability, etc.

You can respond to the survey via these two links: and

They would also like some feedback on what they think are the most important features of anatomical museums and collections, including:

  • having an Anatomical Theatre for displaying anatomical performances.
  • having a large variety of anatomical specimens.
  • having the possibility of exhibiting historical anatomical specimens.
  • having the display of human remains as an explicit exhibition strategy.
  • focusing on the sense of wonder and fascination with the beauty, mystery and complexity of the body.
  • drawing on visitors’ motivation for visiting the museum and their expectations of the museum.
  • being intersted in the reciprocal relation between audiences and content (what is on show?) of anatomical collections.
  • a focus on conservation problems.
  • selcting the right kind of professionals for anatomical museums.

Send your views on these priorities to and

(Unfortunately, I cannot attend the UMAC meeting in Lisbon; hope you will all have some good days in the Portuguese late summer heat).

'Flotte' æbler og 'spændende' konferencer

By Biomedicine in museums

Hver gang jeg går til grønthandleren undrar jeg mig over teksten på skiltene. De annoncerer  ikke kun 10 æbler til 25 kroner — det er ‘flotte æbler’ man sælger. Hos nogen grønthandlere er alle varerne ‘flotte’.

Men hvis alt er ‘flot’ så mister tillægsordet sin betydning. Hvis alle varer er ‘flotte’, så behøver man jo ikke nævne det.

Den her uvane med at strø omkring sig med unødvendige tillægsord sniger sig også ind i universitetsverden. Hver og hveranden dag får jeg mails, der indbyder til et eller andet ‘spændende’ seminar. Her til morgen kom det fx. en mailinvitation til en ‘Spændende konference’ om ‘Public Health and Welfare’ arrangeret af Dansk Selskab for Folkesundhed.

Hvis jeg ikke bliver overbevist af konferencens titel, så tror jeg næppe at ordet ‘spændende’ vil gøre nogen forskel. Tværtimod!. Det lille ord’ spændende’ gør mig faktisk skeptisk. Jeg begynder at mistænke, at arrangørerne ikke rigtigt tror på at emnet i sig selv er spændende nok, men at de behøver tillægsordet ‘spændende’ for at det skal se rigtigt spændende ud. Min reaktion er densamme som hos grøntsagshandleren: det er sikkert bare falsk varebetegnelse for at skjule et eller andet.

Greenaway has got it wrong: there is no 'visual illiteracy' — but there is a widespread 'material illiteracy'.

By Biomedicine in museums

The last issue of ICOM’s e-Newsletter (June-July 2011) carries a short summary of Peter Greenaway‘s presentation “The New Visual Literacy” at ICOM’s 2011 Annual Meeting, in which the British film maker showed images to encourage ‘visual awareness’ among museum people and support his dictum: ‘the image always has the last word’:

Displaying his signature wit and stage presence, he spoke of a widespread visual illiteracy due to an essentially text-based culture and discussed the global museum’s obligation in this new digital age to promote the visual.

I’m not sure I agree. Ours is a text-based culture, indeed. But I see few signs of a ‘visual illiteracy’ when I look around. Visuality is ubiquitous. There are pictures, images, signs, photographs, stills, videos etc. everywhere. Television, DVD players and visual games have inundated our homes. The web is overflowing with images. Almost every online news story is accompanied by a short video clip. Has Greenaway visited Youtube, Google Images or Flickr? Greenaway is speaking in terms of his own visual interests — but by doing so he is flogging a dead horse.

Why does ICOM support this idea of a ‘visual illiteracy’? Museums ought to be the first to direct our attention to the erosion of a common awareness about the material basis of culture. Given the ubiquitous visual and digital awareness and literacy in today’s culture, ICOM would better focus on the need for a new material literacy.

Are science and society frenemies? And what, if anything, does this mean for sci-med-tech communication?

By Biomedicine in museums

Sometimes conference announcements only become interesting in the very last sentence. Like this one for “Frenemies: The love-hate relationsship between science and society”, taking place at Universiteit Twente on 14 September.

Science is put in the dock, so it seems. Experts are under attack, there is public agitation on the internet. Yet we cherish expertise as never before, and cite expert sources whenever they suit us. Are we friends, or enemies, or both? […] This symposium looks at the dynamic role of expertise in our society. How should we understand the notion of expertise? What operates as credible expertise, and when? Is scientific expertise overrated, and are other forms of expertise too easily dismissed? Or is it precisely the other way around?

Seems like any other conference on scientific expertice to me. But then comes the interesting part:

And what, if anything, does this mean for communicating science and technology?

If you plan to attend, send an email to with subject REGISTER #FRENEMIES.

Tenure track job in history of medicine at Yale

By Biomedicine in museums

Although the United States seems be on the track of turning into an intellectually and economically failed nation, some of their universities are still among the best in the world. And among the best of the best is Yale University. Readers of this blog may therefore be interested to hear that Yale invites applications for a tenure track Assistant/Associate or tenured Associate/full Professor in the History of Medicine beginning July 1, 2012. Applicants with interests in the history of the biomedical sciences, experimental life sciences, or clinical practice since 1800 are particularly encouraged to apply.

The search committee will begin considering applications on October 15, 2011. Applicants should send a curriculum vitae, three letters of recommendation, a statement about their work and professional plans, and a sample of their scholarly writing such as a dissertation or book chapter or article to Professor John Harley Warner, History of Medicine Search Committee, c/o Ewa Lech, Section of the History of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, P.O. Box 208015, New Haven, CT 06520-8015, USA. More info from Ms. Lech, (don’t ask questions in the comments section below, this blog is just the humble announcement board).

The medical history background for the Oslo terrorist action

By Biomedicine in museums

One of the inspirational sources of Oslo terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s peculiar manifesto ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence’ is the anonymous blogger Fjordman, who has been a leading intellectual in the international anti-Jihad movement for almost a decade.

In a recent circular mail, Oslo historian of science Vidar Enebakk draws the attention of his Scandinavian colleagues to the fact that Fjordman has not only written about history, religion and politics in general, but also quite a lot about the history of science and medicine to ‘prove’ that modern science and medicine could only have emerged under the umbrella of European Christendom, and definitely not in Islamic cultures.

I’ve now read a few of his many articles (originally published on a variety of extreme anti-Islamic blog). One thing is Fjordman’s extremely one-sided anti-Islamic and pro-Christian interpretation; another thing is that he/she is quite well-read in the history of science and medicine. I’ve made a few Google searches on random stretches of text, which show that Fjordman doesn’t seem to have cut-and-pasted, but apparently has written these articles him-/herself. It’s not original research, but from a technical point of view it’s quite well-written popular history of science and medicine.

Probably only a person with a basic academic training in history of science could have written these texts. As Enebakk points out, we’re probably talking about a person who many Scandinavian historians of science and medicine may already know as a colleague or (former) student, and he therefore suggests us to take a closer look at the texts — analysing arguments, interpretations, stylistic features, etc. — to try find out who hides behind the Fjordman pseudonym.

What shall I say about university museums?

By Biomedicine in museums

I’ve been invited to give a keynote lecture at the 2011 University Museum Conference, which is going to be held 11-12 November at the National Cheng Kung University Museum in Tainan, Taiwan.

Apparently, I’m supposed to speak my mind, so this would be a great opportunity to think through the topic of university museums. But what to say? I’ve browsed all the issues of the University Museums and Collections Journal, but didn’t find anything that really caught my imagination.

Does anyone know a good, provocative, statement about university museums that could work as an appetizer? Any angle is welcomed.

By the way, I’ve never been in Taiwan before; Tainan is supposed to be a rather beautiful city, at least compared to Taipeh.