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December 2011

Medical Museion 2011 highlights

By Biomedicine in museums

As you may know by now, the Medical History Museum at the University of Copenhagen, founded in 1906-07, was renamed Medical Museion in 2003 to mark a change in focus: from doing traditional medical history to understanding what’s going on medicine’s past, present and future through a combination of research and curatorial work.

The results of the last five-six years efforts can be excavated from some of the earlier 2270 (wow, that’s actually quite a few) posts on this site/blog — and here are some of the latest highlights from the year 2011:

We opened the new Balance and Metabolism gallery on the 1st floor in the

We hanged the Genomic Enlightenment installation

The July 2nd cloudburst

Pic a Museum in March

New Web Presence

Astrid’s movies

Jan Erik Olsens research grant on the blind-historical collection

New staff: Niels, Nanna, Daniel, Karin and Louise

Nina came to help us develop the social web with special respect to public health science.

The Polytechnical Museum in Moscow — a gem for technical museum aficionados

By Biomedicine in museums

I just love this series of images from the Russian Polytechnical Museum in Moscow. The photographer, Mae Ryan, was primarily fascinated with the female custodians. But more fascinating, in my mind, are the galleries themselves — the huge rooms, the postwar bleak pastel colours, the curtains (yes, the curtains!), the refusal to translate into English, the heavy didactical atmosphere — and the rich stuff which reminds us that Soviet engineers were among the best in the world.

I hope the museum will never afford to ‘modernise’ these galleries. They are absolute gems — can’t wait to put this place in my museum travel diary:

(from here; hat tip to Sébastien Soubiran)

To give means to give something of yourself — holiday greetings from Medical Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

"Schenken heisst Anderen etwas von dir zu geben" (to give means to give something of yourself to others)

We repeat last year’s greetings, because the image is the best possible I can imagine from a medical museum involved in public engagement; after all, communication is a mutual gift-giving affair. (And again, thanks to Roger Cooter for sending me the original card.)

Want to work with collections at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London?

By Biomedicine in museums

Then you could apply for the job as their Collections Assistant, working with personal material associated with Florence Nightingale, items relating to the Crimean War and nursing artefacts, a letter archive, and a rare book collection; in addition to curatorial duties the job involves working with a wide range of people, including academic researchers and family historians. Contact the Director, Natasha McEnroe ( for further information. Closing date is 10 February 2012.

Anatomical collections as cultural heritage

By Biomedicine in museums

A couple of months ago, I announced a three day meeting titled ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections’, which some of our good medical museum colleagues in Leiden were about to put together for mid-February 2012.

Their aim was to explore anatomical preparations and collections as cultural heritage rather than scientific collections; they were interested in what the technical details of anatomical preparations tell us about the ideas of their maker; how ideas about beauty and perfection have shaped preparations; how the preparations have been used for teaching purposes; how the interest of non-medical audiences have shaped the collections; how curatorial decisions have affected the build-up of collections; etc. 

Now people have sent in their proposals and Rina Knoeff and her colleagues have put a very exciting programme together, which is well worth a trip to Leiden:

  • Rina Knoeff: Patients, Preparations and the Public eye
  • Ruben Verwaal: From Body to Specimen: Physicians and their Patients in Dutch Pathological Collections, 1770-1830
  • Roberta Ballestriero: Between Beauty and Anatomy, Artistic Influences and Influence of Art on Wax Anatomical Collections
  • Carin Berkowitz: Envisioning Anatomy and Practicing Pedagogy: Crafting Anatomical Science through Systems of Display in Enlightenment Britain
  • Bjorn Okholm Skaarup: Anatomical Collections in the Early Modern Art Academy
  • Andrew Cunningham: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or, what Richard Owen did to John Hunter’s Collection
  • Ruth Richardson: Performance Reading: Organ Music… about the specimens’ relations to each other within the Museum, at night
  • Anita Guerrini: Inside the Charnel House: making and showing early modern skeletons
  • Marieke Hendriksen: The meaning of mercury: materiality and aesthesis in the eighteenth century Leiden anatomical collections
  • Lucia Dacome: An inescapable and almost incredible pleasure’: Anatomical Waxworks in mid-eighteenth-century Italy
  • Simon Chaplin: Medical museums, Modernism and ‘the Need for Reform’
  • Hieke Huistra: Dead body in the closet – How the public disappeared from the Leiden anatomical cabinet
  • Cindy Stelmackowich: Anatomical Collections and Scientific Medicine in the Nineteenth Century
  • Laurens de Rooy: Martinus Woeneman’s German Trip and the Foundation of Dutch Experimental Embryology
  • Stephen Kenny: How Southern Culture Shaped Museum Collecting: African-Americans as Medical Specimens
  • Sam Alberti: From Subject to Object: Body Parts as Artefacts
  • Tim Huisman: From famulus to custos; who was the anatomy servant?
  • Paul Lambers: The Historical Collection on Zoological Anatomy and Morphology of the University Museum of the University of Utrecht
  • Tricia Close König: talogues and Observations, Logbooks and Atlases: Paper Technologies and 20th Century Pathological Collections
  • Flavio Häner: More than the Sum of Its Parts – Anatomical Collections and Museums as Historical Objects
  • Birgit Nemec: Visual Cultures of Anatomy on Display. Places, Politics and Publics of Anatomical Images in Early 20th Century Vienna
  • Anna Märker: Model students and ambassador users: the role of the public for the global marketing and distribution of nineteenth-century anatomical models
  • Alfons Zarzoso / José Pardo Tomás; Rise and Fall of the Roca Museum: A Scientific Collection for the Laity
  • Kathryn A. Hoffmann: Lovely Bones, Lost Histories. Bringing Collections back to the Public
  • Nike Fakiner: Sites for Frightening Experiences: Anatomical Exhibitions in the 19th and the Beginning of 20th Century Germany
  • Glenn Harcourt: Terrifying Beauty: The Public Face of the Mütter Museum
  • Karen Ingham: Narrative Remains and Anatomical Collections: An Intervention at London’s Hunterian Museum
  • Lisa Temple-Cox: Making Myself a Monster: Self-Portraiture as Medical Specimen
  • Dries van Dam: Conservation issues in the Leiden anatomical collections

The meeting takes place at Museum Boerhaave on Wednesday 15 – Friday 17 February. For more info, contact Rina Knoeff on

Dialogue about science communication

By Biomedicine in museums

If you are speaking French, this bilingual meeting, titled Science Communication: International Perspectives, Issues and Strategies, to be held in Nancy, 4-7 September, could be very relevant for university museum people:

Universities and research organisations are vibrant communities fully engaged in science communication. Their actions are all the more important because the relationship between science, technology and society at large is at the heart of current debate, particularly at a time when the rapid expansion of digital technology opens up uncountable modes of interaction between producers and users of information. This conference intends to take a closer look at the new forms of dialogue between those who are directly involved in the production of knowledge and those for whom ethical, political and economic questions linked to research and its outcomes are considered just as important as the progress of knowledge.

The organisers want proposals for the following themes (deadline 10 February):

  • The specificity of science communication in universities and research centres
  • Public policy with regard to science communication
  • Collaborative work and partnership
  • Target audiences for science communication
  • New tools, new practices

More here.

The 'material turn' — why aren't museums and collection curators collaborating more with humanities scholars?

By Biomedicine in museums

Consider this quote:

A historian of the not-too-distant future will describe this past decade as marking the “material turn.” If language, and eventually culture, came to distinguish a generational shift in scholarly focus in the second half of the twentieth century, what is occurring now across the range of the humanities—from English literature to the history of science—is a new and deep attention to materiality. Historically oriented scholars are finding in the physical embodiments of knowledge new questions and new perspectives from which to address seemingly “closed,” or at least familiar, issues.

(from the announcement of the new book series Cultural Histories of the Material World launched by Bard Graduate Center and the University of Michigan Press; the first volume will be out in 2012.)

What’s really interesting about this quote (see the full text here) is not the acute observations about the recent “material turn” and “physical embodiments of knowledge”, or the programmatic claim that what is occuring now in the humanities is a “new and deep attention to materiality”. That goes without saying.

No, what’s really interesting is the absence of any reference to museums.

I don’t think this is conscious exclusion from the side of the Bard Graduate Center. It’s rather that museums and collection curators have not been very good at making their study of material artefacts interesting for humanities scholars. Curators are working with material objects all the time. But they are not good at telling humanities professors and students about their work. So, generally speaking, museums and their collections have had rather little contact with current university-based humanistic scholarship.

This lack of contact was probably a good protection of curatorial work during the decades from the 1970s to the late 1990s, when humanities department were dominated by the linguistic turn. But it doesn’t make sense now when academics too are increasingly directing their gaze to material culture. On the contrary — both university-based humanities and museum institutions have everything to gain from a closer collaboration.

Because humanistic scholars have a well-sharpened armamentarium of interesting theoretical approaches to the study of material culture, and they have an overflow of well-educated and smart students ready to use museum collections for research purposes.

And vice versa because museums have well-trained curators, who don’t theorize and write about materiality in general terms only, but have a lot of concrete and tactile knowledge about specific artefacts, their history and material composition.

In other words, more and deeper joint ventures between humanities programmes and museums could be very fruitful. University museums are, almost by definition, particulalry well-placed to forge such bonds between curatorial and university-based humanities practices. This is what we are trying to do on a humble scale here at Medical Museion in Copenhagen — see for example Jan Erik Olsén’s project on the material history of blindness — but I think we could do much, much more.

If anyone knows of succesful collaborative projects between museums curators and humanities scholars interested in material culture, it would be great to hear more about them — please comment below.

The problem of exhibiting pain still hasn't been solved

By Biomedicine in museums

More to the difficulty of displaying abstract concepts in museum exhibits and installations: triggered by a workshop organised as part of the Birkbeck Pain Project, I wrote a post a couple of months ago about the difficulty of displaying pain. A mostly subjective sensation, pain has few, if any, visible physical correlates.

Now there is reason to ask the question again, as the Birkbeck project is hosting yet another, and larger, meeting titled ‘Pain as Emotion; Emotion as Pain: Perspectives from Modern History’, to be held 26 October 2012. Read more about it here or contact the organiser, Rob Boddice, directly.

How to exhibit moral change in a museum?

By Biomedicine in museums

It’s reasonably easy to imagine how some features of emerging biotechnologies can be turned into museum installations and exhibits. For example, enhancement technologies like nanoprosthetics and tissue engineering can rather easily be imagined as 3D installations.

But other concepts are more difficult to translate from words to space. Like morality, for example. I came to think of this when I read the CfP for the first international conference of the Society for the Ethics and Politics of Emerging Technologies, to be held at Maastricht University, 2-4 July 2012.

The unifying theme for the conference is techno-moral change, especially the influence of emerging technology on morality. For example, the organisers are interested in how our capacity to imagine new moralities may be enhanced by the arts, and they invite artists and art theoreticians to explore how the arts have been addressing techno-moral change in the past, or how they believe art could/should address such issues in the future.

The organisers also say (and this it what made me think about museums) they are interested in contributions on how such moral change chould be taken into account in public debates about emerging technologies.

Medical museums are venues for public debates about emerging medical technologies. But how could we make an exhibit or installation using material culture ressources to address the topic of moral change? Morality seems to me to lack both material and visual qualities.

I’m not thinking of submitting or attending. But if someone else is, send an abstract to before 15 February. Read more here.

Nu må ODM sørge for at formidlingsseminarerne bliver mere brugerdrevne!

By Biomedicine in museums

For to uger siden udsendte Organisationen Danske Museer (ODM) programmet til det årlige formidlingsseminar den 26. – 28. marts.

Seminaret kaldes nu “Internationalt Formidlingsseminar”. Og det undrer mig, for i praksis bryder ODM med et vigtigt princip, som de fleste internationale organisationer bygger på, nemlig at den slags mødeprogrammer først bliver fastlagt efter et åbent “call for papers”.

Dvs. princippet — som en lang række nationale organisationer efterhånden også følger — er at programmerne for åbne møder skal være brugerdrevne og bygge på konkurrence. Efter at have valgt mødetema udsender programkommitteen et “call for papers” for at give alle en mulighed for at byde ind. Og derefter vælger man mellem de indsendte forslag, og vælger selvfølgelig dem, man synes er de bedste og mest innovative. (Et mindre antal “keynotes” kan være udpeget på forhånd, men flertallet indlæg bliver udvalgt udfra hvad der bliver tilbudt.)

Fordelene er åbenlyse: For det første sikrer man sig, at den samlede faglige kompetence indenfor fagområdet bliver hørt og at alle får en mulighed for at byde ind.

For det andet får man en vis modvægt imod den traditionalisme, indespisthed og kammeraderi som tit plager faglige organisationer; med åbne “calls” er der større chance for at nytænkning og anderledes tænkning også kan komme til orde — om den har den fornødne kvalitet.

Og endelig har åbne “calls” den fordel, at man kan blive positivt overrasket over at der findes dygtige og interessante bidragsydere, som man ikke kendte i forvejen. Det gør altså arbejdet nemmere for programkommitteen, som ikke skal vride hjernerne for at huske, hvad der nu måtte findes af interessante bidragsydere; istedet kan man vente på at interessante bidrag kommer af sig selv.

Men sådan tænker ODM desværre altså ikke. I dette henseende tænker ODM og arbejdsgruppen som en klassisk bureaukratisk og alvidende organisation. Godt nok har man et bittelille “call for paper” (i ental; en freudian slip?): “Ønsker du at holde et minioplæg, der handler om medborgerskab i forbindelse med seminaret, skal foredragets titel anføres på tilmeldingen og et kort resumé vedhæftes”.

Men det er som sagt tale om “minioplæg”, hvilket i realiteten betyder, at disse vil blive kørt ud på et sidespor; kun studerende og museumsfrivillige vil blive fristet. Det rigtige program vil blive sammensat af arbejdsgruppen ud fra deres suveræne og begrænsede viden om, hvad der nu eventuelt måtte findes af gode og interessante oplægsholdere og emner i det ganske land.

Jeg synes det er på tide at ODM træder ind i det 21. århundrede og reviderer sin policy for fastlæggelse af programmerne for forårs- og efterårsmøderne. Mit forslag er at:

1) ODM’s bestyrelse fastlægger temaet for næste års konferencer.

2) ODM nedsætter et programudvalg, der får til opgave at udarbejde et “call for papers”.

3) Dette “call for papers” udsendes 3 måneder før deadline og 6-7 måneder inden konferencen.

4) Programudvalget vælger så blandt de bedste af de indsendte forslag med hensyn til kvalitet og et varieret program. Intet forhindrer at programudvalget kontakter personer, som de tror vil kunne komme med gode oplæg, for at bede dem indsende forslag. Og intet forhindrer heller programudvalget at invitere speciale nationale eller internationale foredragsholdere (“keynotes”).

Hvis ikke ODM begynder at leve op til denne almindelige praksis for åbne møder,  synes jeg Kulturarvsstyrelsen burde holde inde med rådighedssummen og tilskuddet fra formidlingspuljen.