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September 2011

The moral discipline of curatorship

By Biomedicine in museums

In The Sovereignty of Good (1970) Iris Murdoch suggested that intellectual discipline is moral discipline. She used the learning of new languages as an example:

If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student – not to pretend to know what one does not – is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact that damns his theory.

Same with Latin and Greek, chemistry, molecular biology, etc. — these are intellectual disciplines with an authoritative structure that commands our respect. Creativity — which comes from inside — must be respectful to the independent outer world, whether it’s grammar or molecules.

Same with museums. One thing is the curator’s creativity, which leads to new ways of ordering, displaying, and exciting transdisciplinary breaking of boundaries. Another is the restraints set by the material things, the photographs, and the archival documents.

We praise upbeat creative curatorship. But we should also remember to praise curators who handle their material and textual ressources with honesty and humility. Such curators are in tune with reality and help satisfy our hunger for reality. Their work leads them away from themselves towards the things themselves; and a result they probably also help lead the museum visitors away from themselves towards the world outside them.

In fact, museums could be great experiments in demonstrating that there are vast stretches of cultural, social and natural reality that we cannot just “take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal”. Museums would in principle be perfect antidotes to stupid social constructivism (not that constructivism, for example in the original phenomenological sense of Alfred Schütz, was stupid, but that many stupid things have been written and said with reference to it). 

Caveat: I’m wondering how my fascination with Iris Murdoch (which has followed me since I began writing biography) can coexist with my equally great fascination with the aesthetics of medical things? Immediately it looks like a contradiction — but maybe it depends on what you mean by aesthetics?

The fascinating world of blog spam

By Biomedicine in museums

We all hate blog spam. Spam filters are a blessing — and I’m amazed how efficient they are: I rarely need to weed out the comment folder.

Sometimes, however, my Akismet filter is too efficient, and therefore I use to go through the spam folder once in a while to see if there are any nuggets hidden in the trash. It only takes a few minutes to rapidly browse the spam and I actually rescue a comment (and a potential colleague!) now and then. And it’s also quite interesting to see how the spam content has its own logic over time. A couple of years ago, it was a lot of ads for acai berry juices, last winter it was genital torture that filled the folder, followed by offers for cheap mortage loans. Now it’s back to a classic theme: animal sex.

It’s also fun to see how people try to seduce me into clicking on their damn links. It’s not difficult for me to resist clicking on a comment that wants me to look at images of ball torture with chopsticks. But somtimes I’m tempted by comments which seem to have read the post and write something flattering, like:

Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative. I’m going to watch out for Brussels. I will be grateful if you continue this in future. A lot of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

(from a site seelling warfare games; sneaky trick, that reference to Brussels 🙂


Please let me know if you’re looking for a writer for your blog. You have some really good articles and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d really like to write some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please shoot me an email if interested. Thanks!

(from a company selling new car and truck tires).

The history of spam content is a distorted mirror of the history of commercial culture in the 2000s. I really hope some giant database somewhere gathers a representative sample of spam for future historians.

The reopened National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Md. — hope it's better this time

By Biomedicine in museums

Some years ago, I wrote a pretty critical review of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC. Now the museum has reopened on the new site in Silver Spring, Maryland, a little further north of DC.

The new building features, they say, “a state-of-the-art collections management facility” to house the museums 25-million-object collection (that sounds pretty much, and it’s probably because they have a rather unusual way of counting their artefacts, but nevertheless, their collection aren’t exactly miniscule).

The first exhibits available to the public will feature artifacts and specimens related to Civil War medicine and human anatomy/pathology.

See more on their website: and Facebook page:

Synthetic biology — science, art, design

By Biomedicine in museums

After more than half a year of budget negotations, Medical Museion is now officially part of the EC 7th FWP programme-financed project StudioLab.

Inspired by the merging of the artists studio with the research lab to create a hybrid creative space, STUDIOLAB proposes the creation of a new European platform for creative interactions between art and science. STUDIOLAB brings together major players in scientific research with centres of excellence in the arts and experimental design and leverages the existence of a new network of hybrid spaces to pilot a series of projects at the interface between art and science.

Science Gallery in Dublin, Le Laboratoire in Paris, Ars Electronica in Linz, Royal College of Art in London, and MediaLab Prado in Madrid are the five major partners — and the rest of us, including Medical Museion, are six associated partners (which means we get less money — but also have less responsibility).

StudioLab will involve activities along three key dimensions: incubation of art-science projects, education and public engagement. Medical Museion’s part of the contract is to create a public engagement-oriented installation and event about synthetic biology (i.e., the next hot topic in the life sciences).

So now we are on the outlook for good ideas! And I thought we might get some inspiration from the seminar titled ‘Organizing collaborations: Synthetic biology, social science, art and design’ that Jane Calvert from INNOGEN, Edinburgh, is giving here in Copenhagen on Thursday:

Something that makes the emerging field of synthetic biology particularly interesting is that diverse groups including social scientists, ethicists, lawyers, policy makers, artists, designers and publics are becoming involved in the field from the outset. In this presentation, Jane Calvert explores the opportunities and challenges provided by these new forms of collaboration, drawing both on her own experiences as a social scientist studying synthetic biology, and on the Synthetic Aesthetics project, which brings synthetic biologists together with artists and designers.

This is very much along the lines we’ve been thinking in the StudioLab context.

The seminar takes place Thursday 22 September, 3-5 pm, in room K4.41, Kilevej 14A, Copenhagen Business School. Be sure to register for the seminar by email to before 19 September.

Curating heritage through games?

By Biomedicine in museums

I love playing Angry Birds when I’m tired, but I never thought I would play a game that helped curate a museum collection.

But now I know better after having read an interesting post on the Open Objects blog by Mia Ridge (Open University) about the session on ‘Entrepreneurship and Social Media”, which she chaired yesterday at the Museums Galleries Scotland conference.

mmg logoMia’s session was largely about crowdsourcing and her own approach was crowdsourcing through games. Mia has worked at the Science Museum in London, where she researched and developed ‘Museum Metadata Games’ to explore “how crowdsourcing games could get people to have fun while improving the content around ‘difficult’ museum objects”. As she points out, most collections websites are not that interesting to the general public, partly because of a ‘semantic gap’ between everyday language and curators’ catalogue language. Her solution was a crowdsourcing interface that worked like a game (after all 250 million people worldwide play social games; some even play museum games, like Wellcome Collection’s High Tea and the National Library of Finland’s DigitalKoort which had 25,000 visitors complete over 2 million individual tasks in two months. Here’s Mia’s example of a curating game called ‘Dora’s lost data’:

In the tagging game ‘Dora’s lost data’, the player meets Dora, a junior curator who needs their help replacing some lost data. Dora asks the player to add words that would help someone find the object shown in Google.

Her website proudly asserts that “So far players like you have improved 343 records for 2 museums through games on this site”. I’m not sure I find this overwhelmingly impressive. But it’s an interesting start — and I wouldn’t be surprised if gaming made curatorship become more participative in the future.

Moral aesthetics and moral constraints in representing and replacing bodies

By Biomedicine in museums

A month ago, we submitted a grant application for a new major exhibition about human remains here at Medical Museion. And now we are looking for new interesting approaches to the display of such contested artefacts.

A damaged San Sebastian, Medical Museion, 2009

Besides the mere aesthetic fascination in these kinds of artefacts: what interesting conceptual approaches can we take to the topic?

Shall we play on the preservation of human remains in the classical age of anatomy vs. the new age of biobanks? Or on the relation between preserved human remains vs. their buried counterparts? Or on the parts of the body that are taken out and turned into artefacts vs. non-living artefacts that are inserted into the body?

There are plenty of possibilities, and historians of medicine, science study scholars, anthropologists  and so forth can provide a number of analytical perspectives to help make such an exhibition more interesting.

Which means that we are very interested in what anthropologists Lesley Sharp and Janelle Taylor have to say in a seminar titled ‘Representing and replacing bodies’ that our joint Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies (CMeST) organises together with the Dept of Anthropology on Friday 23 September, 10.30am-noon.

Lesley Sharp will speak about ‘Virtuous Science and its Moral Constraints in Experimental Organ Replacement: An Anthropological Assessment’ and Janelle Taylor about ‘Romancing the Real: Moral Aesthetics in Medical Education and Research’. The seminar takes place in room 10.0.11 in the CSS-building complex on Øster Farimagsgade 5, Copenhagen.

Later in the day, Lesley, Janelle and a handful of of CMeST-people will meet here at Medical Museion for an informal discussion about possible conceptual approaches to the planned human remans exhibition. I’ll be back with more thoughts about this later.

More on best practice in organising academic meetings

By Biomedicine in museums

Apropos the forthcoming Birkbeck workshop on pain without lesions I referred to a couple of days ago — the way the workshop is organised is quite interesting, because it reminds me of the discussion we had on this blog a few months ago about promoting best practice in organising academic meetings.

The organisers of the planned pain workshop at Birkbeck seem to have learned from their medical humanities colleagues at King’s — speakers are required to provide drafts of their papers in advance and they will not have traditional paper panels; instead speakers will be asked to present as “a conversant in tandem with another speaker on a unified theme, after which a chaired group discussion will proceed for the majority of the time allotted for the session”.

Conference and workshop formats are up for serious revisions now that we are used to social media. Sooner or later physical meeting formats will have to learn from the experiences on the web. It seems to be a long way to go, however. Spread the word and let us here at Biomedicine on Display know if you have found other ways of doing it.