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March 2012

Save the human anatomical heritage!

By Biomedicine in museums

At the conference ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections held in Leiden last month, several participants expressed worries about the fate of anatomical and pathological collection around the world.

Following up on this, Ruth Richardson (King’s and Hongkong), Cindy Stelmackowich (New York Academy of Medicine and Carleton University), Rob Zwijnenberg (Leiden) and Rina Knoeff (Leiden) have drafted a Declaration on Human Anatomy / Anatomical Collections — which  they hope as many as possible are willing to sign (read the Declaration below).

Parts of the pathological bone collection that was damaged in the Copenhagen cloudburst, 2 July 2011

If you agree with the text, please send a mail to Rina Knoeff  ( and tell her so, preferrably before 10 April (write your title, name, position, and affiliation, like:  ‘Dr. Rina Knoeff, medical historian, Leiden University’). And, importantly, ask others to send similar support mails.

The signed Declaration will be sent to The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and other national and international medical journals; to art journals and history journals; to medical schools worldwide; to medical educators, museums, medical and surgical organizations, as well as to funders and foundations, like the Wellcome and the United Nations — and anywhere else you can think of.

To avoid that the Declaration is sent to important institutions twice, Rina will compile a master sending list. If you have suggestions for recipients, please send her names (and if possible addresses) of the organisations and institutions you think are relevant, so she can add them to the list.

And here’s the declaration text:

Concerning the Conservation and Preservation of Anatomical and Pathological Collections

This declaration is addressed to those responsible or anatomical and pathological museums and collections worldwide.

From: Participants, delegates and supporters of the international conference on ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections’, held at Leiden University, 15-18 February 2012.

We are scholars, curators and creative artists from across Europe and North America with professional involvements in human anatomy and pathology. We are writing to express our very great concern about the storage and preservation of collections of human anatomy and pathology in some parts of the world.

Almost every medical faculty possesses anatomical and/or pathological collections: human and animal preparations, wax- and other models, as well as drawings, photographs and documents and archives relating to them.

We greet and wholeheartedly commend and admire those institutions in which anatomical and pathological museum materials are celebrated and well-cared for.

However, we are also aware that in some other institutions, such collections are neglected: badly stored, poorly maintained, and rendered inaccessible to medical and other audiences.

Newer teaching methods and preoccupations have sometimes caused these collections to become under-appreciated. Financial constraints and crises can often mean that funding for the conservation, storage, and sometimes even the preservation, of anatomical collections can become de-prioritized. As a result, collections can be in great danger of becoming undervalued and neglected, which may eventually result in permanent damage.

We are aware of more than one recent instance in which curators have been marginalized or lost, and collections placed in inappropriate ‘storage’ conditions, rendering them liable to serious deterioration. Separated from their archives, these collections can lose identity, sometimes irrevocably.

We greatly fear that some uniquely important anatomical collections are currently in danger of being irretrievably damaged and perhaps lost to medical and cultural heritage.

We, the undersigned, wish to raise international awareness concerning the current critical situation for these collections.

Anatomical and pathological collections are medically relevant not only for future generations of medical students and faculty, and for future medical research. They are also important in the history of medicine generally, for the history of the institutions to which they belong, and also for a wider understanding of the cultural history of the body.

These collections sometimes document diseases and medical conditions that are now rare or simply no longer exist, teaching methods and preoccupations currently unfashionable or apparently superseded, and techniques of manufacture and display no longer practised. Collections often hold rare and extraordinary materials that are records of unique scientific investigations, medical conditions, and skills. In some cases these materials are the only documents that allow us to understand key changes and developments in Western medicine, and their dissemination.

Moreover, anatomical collections are crucial to new scholarly inter-disciplinary studies that investigate the interaction between arts and sciences, especially but not exclusively medicine. Such collections allow the study of interactions between anatomists, scientists and anatomical artists, and other occupational groups involved in anatomical and pathological displays. They embody the rich histories related to the display of natural history and medical cabinets; they reveal how new artistic and documentary techniques and materials were adopted by physicians and scientists in other historical periods; they demonstrate how new knowledge about the body and the natural world was presented by and for the medical, scientific and sometimes lay audiences.

Ultimately anatomical collections are important in knowing ourselves and the bodies we are. In this sense they are no less important than world famous artworks like the “Mona Lisa”, the “Venus de Milo” or Michelangelo’s “David”.

We urge medical faculties worldwide to mobilise all possible means in order to protect and preserve the important academic, medical, institutional, scientific and cultural heritage these collections represent.

Moreover we urge funding bodies to recognise and cherish these collections.

The initial signatories were:

Babke Aarts (assistant curator, Utrecht University Museum)
Dr. Philip Beh, MBBS, DMJ, FHKAM(Path), FFFLM (Associate Professor forensic pathology, the University of Hong Kong)
Prof. Montserrat Cabré (historian of science, Universidad de Cantabria)
Prof. P.H. Dangerfield (clinical anatomist, University of Liverpool)
Andries J. van Dam (conservator, Leiden University Medical Centre and directory board member Committee for Conservation, International Council of Museums, ICOM-CC)
J. Carlos Garcia-Reyes (historian of science, CSIC, Barcelona)
Christopher Henry (Director of Heritage, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh)
Hieke Huistra Msc (medical historian, Leiden University)
Dr. Stephen C. Kenny (historian, University of Liverpool)
Dr. Rina Knoeff (medical historian, Leiden University)
Dr. José Pardo-Tomás (medical historian, CSIC, Spanish Council of Scientific Research)
Dr Ruth Richardson (historian, King’s College, London and Hong Kong University)
Dr. Cindy Stelmackowich (artist, art historian and medical historian, New York Academy of Medicine and Carleton University)
Prof. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (Professor of English, University of Toulouse (UTM))
Darren Wagner (cultural and medical historian, University of York)
Dr. Alfons Zarzoso (historian and curator, Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya, Barcelona, CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)
Prof. Dr. Robert Zwijnenberg (Leiden chair of art in relation to the sciences, Leiden University)
Christopher Henry (Director of Heritage, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburg)

and we hope many others will join!

Scientific/technological artefacts and nationality

By Biomedicine in museums

I first got hooked on using Twitter in- and outside conference rooms when I attended last year’s Artefacts meeting at the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden. Hopefully the award-winning and refurbished National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh also has an acceptable wifi connection when hosting this year’s meeting, 7-9 October.

This year’s meeting is thematically focused on scientific and technological museum artefacts against the backdrop of the notion of nationality, i.e., questions like:

  • Do artefacts embody national styles or distinct communities of practice?
  • Do artefacts reflect particular national attitudes on the relationship between science and technology?
  • Do artefacts act as signifiers of nationhood and how are they enlisted in the construction of nationalist agendas?
  • National, international or local: how do museums aim at audiences through artefacts stories?

As the organiser, Klaus Staubermann, reminds us, the Artefacts conferences “are friendly and informal meetings with the character of workshops” (see my report from the Oslo meeting in 2007), and there is plenty of time for open discussion and networking (that is, both face-to-face and through Twitter).

Each contributor will get 20 minutes for presentation, followed by ample of time for questions and discussion. If you want to make a presentation, contact Klaus at not later than 30 April.

How can we dare leave to secure warm, fuzzy email universe and begin taking academic discussions online.

By Biomedicine in museums

Some days ago I emailed my Medical Museion colleagues, asking if anyone happened to know Angela Last (I had visited her website, and found her research profile congenial to our academic research and curatorial programme.)

My short inquiry elicited an intensive in-house email correspondence, in which Louise, Adam and myself brought views, which I think may have implications, both specifically for our planned Studiolab event on synthetic biology early next year and, more generally, for the problem of how to display micro- and nanosized material things in museums.

After 6-7 turns Daniel wrote: “Indeed a wonderful discussion — and imagine if it had been carried out on Google+ or on our website! ;)”. Which in turn prompted Louise to ask: “How about excerpting the existing conversation as a blog post, with some reflection on what we’re doing, then continuing the discussion in comments?”.

I’ve already posted the actual conversation. What interests me here, however, is the general observation as academics we tend to limit our informal discussions to the email-medium and are often hesitant to take the debate online.

True, some of us already do have lots of academic discussions online. To speak for myself, over the last two years I have incited and taken part in several serious discussions on Facebook and Twitter (and a few on Google+) and I feel quite comfortable about it. But all these discussions have been with people far away from my own institution. My in-house discussions almost always takes place through email.

How can we dare leave to secure warm, fuzzy email universe and begin taking more of our academic discussions in the public? How to strike a reasonable balance between in-house and online discussions threads? Louise’s suggestion is to start in-house discussions through email and then porting them over to an online medium at an earlier stage in the discussion:

In general I think we should probably run email threads past all contributors before posting in public, and it does raise some technical questions about (a) stripping out sensitive/private information (which of course not everyone will agree on the boundaries of) and (b) giving context – we freely refer to shared knowledge about e.g., the human remains exhibition, and the studiolab project … Not at all prohibitive issues though!

There is probably not any formulaic solution to how to strike the balance between in-house and public discussions. Generally speaking, however, I believe many more of our in-house conversations could profitably run online — thereby encouraging a larger group of people to follow our thoughts and perhaps help us solve the problems we’re struggling with.

Any comments — here or on Twitter?

Displaying stuff at the nanolevel in museums

By Biomedicine in museums
Here are excerpts from an email-discussion that Adam, Louise and I had recently on displaying material things at the nanolevel. The discussion was prompted by a search I made on the net to find interesting potential invitees for our MUSE seminar series in the autumn and I’ve put the discussion online (for reasons explained in the following post) to hopefully inspire people interesting in displaying micro- and nanosized objects in museums to help us develop these ideas further:
No, but thanks for passing on – sounds very interesting*. Her thesis is available here– I’ve only got to Chapter 3 but in the meantime think this comment from the abstract is very pertinent for synthetic biology (as well as for future uses of brain imaging); “This thesis proposes that one of the problems with engaging publics with nanotechnology is a lack of attention to the way nanoscale material processes are imagined or understood by publics”

She also addresses one of the key questions that I think comes up for StudioLab: “whether these artistic experiments and the policy-based ‘experiments in dialogue’ (Stilgoe, 2007) could be brought together. Could playful, sensory engagement with the materiality of nanotechnology blur the spaces between scientific and public engagements with matter and create the conditions for more meaningful deliberations on ‘invisible risks’?”.

Karin and I will discuss next week whether we should pick her brains/attempt to involve her in StudioLab, if not should we perhaps invite her to give a talk in the Autumn in any case?

On a practical note, does anyone have access to Leonardo? She has a paper in there, which I think is a summary of her thesis, but KU doesn’t have a subscription …


* and, importantly, swims in Tooting Bec Lido near where I grew up. I know this from reading her thesis acknowledgements, always fun!


Louise et al.

I think it would be great to have Angela Last (or someone else) come and address these things, which go to the heart of the problem of experiencing the material nature of scientific objects.

Matter matters so differently at the nanolevel. the thermodynamic properties of fluids change dramatically, as does viscosity etc. It’s a kind of entirely new physical world one would enter if one was an observer at the nanoscale. For example, does it make sense to think in terms if ‘sound’ at the nanolevel, when soundwaves are a thousand times larger than the objects. Does it make sense to speak about ‘light’ when the wavelengths of (for us) visible light is 100 times the size of a small protein. How does one make sense of this in science communication?



We should definetely invite her, her work looks very interesting – would also be interesting to discuss her work in the context of the Human Remains-exhibition, she might have some good input.




Nanosize remains??


I was thinking more of the general question of the difficulty of relating to matter once the scales shift dramatically downwards, but nanosized remains sounds tempting.


This is an interesting question — remains that can still, in some reasonable way, be called ‘human’, are such, precisely because they exist on a scale (meter, centimeter, maybe millimeter, maybe micrometer) which retains some properties we might call ‘human’, as opposed to ‘just molecules’ or ‘just atoms’. Nanoscale is ‘just molecules’, ‘just atoms’.


Yeah, there is something really interesting in when (and if) the category of the human loses meaning. It seems to me that the more science delves into the world of ‘just atoms’ and ‘just molecules’ and intervenes on that level, the more we are forced to reconfigure our sense of the human as also being ‘just molecules’ and ‘just atoms’ – and this affects a fundamental change, since what happens at the nanoscale seems at odds with the conceptions of time and space that are hardwired into how we appropriate the world. Related to this point, there is a really interesting philosophical trend called ‘weird realism’, which calls upon the writing of H.P. Lovecraft in order to renew a sense of the weird in philosophy. As Graham Harman writes in an essay in the journal Collapse:

“Against the model of philosophy as a rubber stamp for common sense and archival sobriety, I would propose that philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird.”

(Collapse can be read here:


Sounds like general enthusiasm for inviting her, and thanks for the link Adam […]!

So many interesting strands coming up here, I agree that her discussion of presenting invisible scales as physical installation would be relevant both to Human Remains and to Studiolab. I think the idea of pushing past DNA to a weird-er, nanoscale realm is also fascinating, and an interesting slant as Adam suggests on the theme of how interventionist, molecular biomedicine might affect our understanding of the body. In terms of fitting it into the exhibition schema, are there any research practices that collect/use human remains explicitly on this scale, or senses in which we could view lab procedures for handling larger samples in this way?

Even if not, I think this discussion throws up a couple of nice niggly questions for the theme of decreasing scale of human remains corresponding to decreasing identity until we come ‘full circle’ back to DNA and the uniquely identifiable subject. It made me think of the adage ‘we all contain molecules of Shakespeare’, and those popular statistics about the frequency with which the materials that compose our bodies turn over and are replaced (replacing all the planks in a ship, anyone?). I think this draws attention to the fact that the perception of identity in the human samples depends to some degree (a) on whether the living process of turnover in the research materials is halted – compare a pickled organ to a transplanted one; a sample on a slide to a cell line in a biobank (time also gets rather weird here of course…), and (b) on the perspective of the ‘viewer’ on the sample; DNA is of course present at all scales, but it’s perhaps when that becomes the focus of the research and its communication that it seems again to represent individuals; one’s attitude to the status of the personality or spirit affects how much a transplanted organ is identified with the donor. I think this question of material identity might be a good one to pique interest and debate in a side room/event.

I’m also very interested in her theoretical and practical attempt to combine sci-arts practice with explicit attempts at ‘public engagement’; the tension in goals that I think exists at the heart of StudioLab …



Wonderful discussion!
So, who invites Angela Last?
And when do we want to see her? Maybe when Ken Arnold is here (approx. 15 August – 15 September)?

Any further comments — here or on Twitter?

Heldagsmøde om sprog, sygdom og sundhed i historien

By Biomedicine in museums

Dansk Medicinsk-historisk Selskab holder heldagsmøde om sprog, sygdom og sundhed i historien — lørdag den 24. marts. Både medlemmer og ikke-medlemmer er velkommen (men ikke-medlemmer skal betale lidt mere).

Professor Jørn Lund vil tale om italesættelsen af sygdom fra Holbergs og Todes tid til arbejdet i 1990erne med at vælge opslagsord til Den Store Danske Encyklopædi. Professor Bent Jørgensen vil fortælle om hvordan man kan læse danske bondedagbøger i 1700- og 1800-tallet med medicinhistoriske udgangspunkter. Og endelig vil professor Torben Jørgensen fortælle om retorikken i forebyggelsesdebatten i slutningen af 1900-tallet.

Og selvfølgelig vil der blive mulighed for at se Medicinsk Museions aktuelle udstillinger — og høre mere om dem.

Det hele foregår på Medicinsk Museion, Bredgade 62, d. 24. marts kl. 10-15.30.

Af hensyn til plads og arrangement af frokost kræves tilmelding (senest 19. marts; husk det nu!). Tilmelding til Anne Dorthe Suderbo,, og indbetaling til konto 6771 – 0006099498 (husk at skrive navn på). Pris for deltagelse: medlemmer kr. 100,00, ikke-medlemmer kr. 150,00 inklusiv frokost.

Læs mere her:

The biological and biomedical challenge to the humanities

By Biomedicine in museums

Next week, Steve Fuller (Dept of Sociology, University of Warwick) and Chris Renwick (Dept of History, University of York) will discuss ‘The Biological Challenge to the Social Sciences’ in Warwick:

The social and biological sciences came into existence in the second half of the 19th century and have always pursued partly overlapping agendas. No one has doubted that human societies are forms of life and life itself is inherently ‘social’ in several senses. Nevertheless, many of these ‘socio-biological’ agendas have had controversial political consequences that led to their stigmatisation as ‘pseudo-science’ by the founders of sociology. Indeed phrases like ‘Social Darwinism’, ‘eugenics’ and ‘scientific racism’ remain problematic to this day. However, revolutions in molecular biology and biotechnology in the second half of the 20th century, along with developments in neuroscience, have led to a re-assessment of this legacy and its prospects. At play here is a cultural horizon that takes seriously the moral relevance of animals and ‘evolutionary psychology’ as a metatheory of the social sciences – not to mention explicit financial incentives for social scientists to define their research agendas in closer alignment to the biomedical sciences. There has been so far relatively little social science reflection on why we find ourselves in this situation. Rather, social scientists either presume or ignore it.

Great question! Next stop: how do the humanities cope with the biomedical challenge?

It’s Wednesday 14 March, 2-5 pm, Millburn House, University of Warwick; make booking here: