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April 2012

Examine first, ask what it is later — comments on David Pantalony's talk at Medical Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

Yesterday, David Pantalony from University of Ottawa and the Canada Science and Technology Museum gave a talk in Medical Museion’s MUSE seminar series titled ‘Examine first, ask what it is later: The multiple interpretations of 20th century scientific artifacts’.

David’s presentation gave rise to an intense discussion and an interesting stream of twitter-comments that are eternalised on Storify here.

Some excerpts from the Twitter comments here:

  • Engaging objects is a way of resisting a textual constriction of knowledge
  • Maybe you cld say that an ‘exhibition curator’ *cares* for objects, while an ‘exhibitionist’ shows off
  • Did Pantalony just say: “I don’t really understand exhibitions” ?
  • Bottom-up curatorship is a good example of biopolitical production (vide Negri) – after all Latin ‘cura’ means ‘care’
  • “Going into the collection my goal is to learn about the world. Not the history of specific technology” (David Pantalony)
  • Wonderful to hear a exhibition curator (@SciTechCurator) who takes the collected object as his evident point of departure
  • Collection multitude vs. cultural Empire (to paraphrase Hardt and Negri)
  • Museum collections are an “immovable foundation of diversity” in a culturally and politically homogenous landscape
  • Pantalony: Museum collections as source of diversity to counter cultural, political, artistic & intellectual homogeneity in society.
  • Medical device arrives at museum painted one color. Doesn’t mean it spent its working life in that particular skin
  • Pantalony neatly gestalts his points about the need for a close engagement with objects through his own enthusiasm.
  • Where to start when starting from a museum object? How about asking if people *like* it and why?
  • David (@SciTechCurator) radiates a unadulterated love for objects; very contagiuos 🙂
  • Pantalony persuasive on starting from the object for curation, display, and also teaching and staff encounters
  • Museum objects as trophees!

Hvor foregik forskningskommunikation 2.0 egentlig på PCST-konferencen i sidste uge?

By Biomedicine in museums

Under overskriften “Forskningskommunikation 2.0” skrev Kristian H. Nielsen igår på om nogle af sine indtryk fra den lige afsluttede Public Communication of Science and Technology-konference i Firenze.

Jeg har ikke noget at indvende mod Kristians referat af plenumsessionen som sådan. Det jeg ikke forstår, er at han bruger udtrykket”forskningskommunikation 2.0″ som overskrift på indlægget, uden at gøre opmærksom på, at der under hele konferencen kørte en meget intens Twitter-strøm som baggrund til sessionerne.

Der var en konstant strøm af kommentarer til de enkelte oplæg, sessioner og konferencen som helhed, nogle gange flere i minuttet. Jeg vil tro at der var lige så mange kommentarer på Twitter som der var mundtlige spørgsmål under sessionerne. Flere af deltagerne sparede Twitter-strømmen på Storify, så den kan stadigvæk læses, fx. her.

Grunden til at jeg påpeger dette er, at jeg mener, at Twitter lige nu er det mest interessante udtryk for ånden i begrebet “forskningskommunikation 2.0”. Det blev gjort meget tydligt torsdag eftermiddag under en session, der var arrangeret for at kikke tilbage på tidskriftet Public Understanding of Science’s 20-årige historie. Her sagde PUS-redaktør Martin Bauer bl.a., nærmest i en bisætning, at han ikke vidste hvad en blog var eller hvad den kunne bruges til.

Måske var det bare en dårlig formulering, eller måske var det en provokation, resultatet blev under alle omstændigheder at Twitter-strømmen nærmest eksploderede. Hvordan kunne redaktøren for PUS være så uvidende om sociale medier og deres betydning for forskningskommunikation?

Begrebet “forskningskommunikation 2.0” kan let misforstås (og misbruges). Jeg tror det ville være godt med en bredere diskussion om hvad begrebet står for, hvordan forskningskommunikation via sociale medier kan foregå i dag, og hvad fremtiden kan byde på i den retning.

Deep lacerations, inflicted in the blink of an eye

By Biomedicine in museums

One of the favourite topics in our museum discussions is ‘presence effects’, i.e., how close encounters with museum objects can convey other (and often deeper) kinds of experiences than those you get from reading a book or hearing a talk (see, e.g., Ken Arnold’s and my article in a recent issue of the journal Isis).

Alistair Kwan, Assistant Director of the Study Group Program at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, University of Rochester, relates a nice example of the difference between reading about a medical treatment in a book and having it demonstrated by means of a museum specimen:

I once did a little experiment: I asked a class to describe to me the phlebotomy apparatus that they’d read about in a history of medicine. They described it at length, with considerable detail. They told me how it worked.

Then I opened a box and showed them a common multiple-blade scarificator and some horn suction cups and brass syringe. “Is this what you were thinking of?” Every one of them said no. All were completely puzzled about how the author had so thoroughly misled them, supposedly in the name of scholarly truth.

I cocked the spring, and released the blades. They heard the snap. Only a few of them caught a glimpse of the blades spinning past; the rest didn’t even see it. Several retreated, pulling in their hands and holding their arms. All seemed to be imagining what it must feel like to have those blades flash through your skin.

None of that had come through in the book at all.

They had thought of something more like gentle surface scratches, or receiving a single, carefully controlled cut.

Not this grid of relatively deep lacerations, inflicted in the blink of an eye.

(from the rete mailing list)

That’s a nice example — would be great to hear more!

(thumbnail courtesy:

What does a scientist look like?

By Biomedicine in museums

The traditional media image of what ‘a scientist’ looks like is pretty stereotypical, especially in film.

The aim of the This Is What A Scientist Looks Like tumblr-site with the subtitle “Change the perception of who and what a scientist is or isn’t” is to overthrow “the overwhelming stereotype that science is conducted behind closed doors by unapproachable old, white men”, who look like Einstein or Dr No. Take a look in the archive!

For people who, like me, love to watch human physiognomies, this is a feast.

(thanks 103.7FM for the thumbnail)

Are museum rooms without social media enhancement really 'stupid'?

By Biomedicine in museums

I came across this tweet from Archimuse the other day:

OK, it’s just an ephemeral twitter post. But both the original tweet and the retweet are from influential sites (Archimuse and Museums and the Web, respectively), whose words should normally be taken seriously.

So when they say that museum gallery rooms which are not assisted by many media (including, I guess, social media) are ‘stupid’, I think one has to take that claim seriously as more than an accidental tweet.

There may be ‘stupid’ ways of building galleries and displaying material artefacts. And there may also be ‘stupid’ ways of using social media in museums. There are plenty of opportunities for being ‘stupid’ in museums and on the web.

But to suggest that building a gallery without social media enhancement is ‘stupid’ per se — that claim is both ignorant and arrogant.

Ignorant because it shows a lack of understanding of the importance of unmediated engagement with material culture.

And arrogant, because it is made from the position of a technology (new media), which is only about ten years old, in contrast to the tradition for unmediated display of material museum artefacts, which has existed for hundreds of years.

And that’s why, in spite of being as long-time practitioner of new media in museums, I think the notion of ‘stupid rooms’ is — stupid!


Biomarkers — an impossible topic for an exhibition?

By Biomedicine in museums

‘Biomarkers’, i.e., chemical substances that are used as indicators of biological (especially pathological) conditions, is one of these important concepts in contemporary biomedicine that seem to be almost impossible as an exhibition topic — partly because the idea of ‘biomarker’ is so abstract and partly because the involved artefacts and substances don’t have much ‘presence’.

Unfortunately, because the search for biomarkers for diagnosing diseases or targets for personalised tharapies is accelerating. And maybe an innovative exhibition curator could learn something after all from the forthcoming conference ‘Towards personalized medicine? Exploring biomarkers’, organised by the Life-Science-Governance Research Platform at the University of Vienna in late June.

The aim of the conference is to explore, from the perspective of the humanities and the social sciences, the implications of biomarker research for “the daily practices of medical research and health care, and what kinds of futures are generated through the emerging biomarker practices”.

Proposed presentations should either explore translation processes of biomarker candidates, and/or discuss the various effects that biomarkers create, and explore the cultural impacts of the new developments in the biomarker field in biomedicine and society. Abstracts of roughly 300 words should be sent to by April 22; accepted presenters will be notified a week later. The conference will take place at the University of Vienna, Austria, 28-28 June. More info here.

(thumbnail courtesy: Foundation for the NIH)

Best of the museum web in 2012

By Biomedicine in museums

The Museums and the Web 2012 conference in San Diego has just ended.

In addition to attending the meeting and participating in the twitter backchannel, members of the museum community nominated and voted for their favourite museum websites:

Here’s the result of the popular vote for Best of the Web 2012 (People’s Choice):

15 Second Place 1
26 Treasures mobile audio tour 1
A journey back and forth (Resan fram och tillbaka in Swedish) 0
Adviz 0
Airbrush 0
American Indian Responses to Environmental Challenges 2
Armando Museum 0
ArtClix 7
Beyond the Chalkboard 12
BMW Guggenheim Lab 1
Bound for South Australia 0
Building Detroit 0 2
Cleveland Historical 1
Collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1
Dartmouth Museum 4
Drench game 0
East Perth Power Station History Project 0
EUscreen – Discover Europe’s Television Heritage 3
Field Guide to Victorian Fauna 2
Finestre sull’Arte 2
Getting Word 0
Guggenheim Publications 0
How Things Fly 1 0
Ice Core Records – From Volcanoes to Supernovas 0
Infinity of Nations 4
It’s Elemental 0
Itineraries, at MACBA.CAT 18
Kermadec Expedition blog 1
LiveScience 0
Love Lace (website and app) 0
MADRE – Museo d’Arte contemporanea DonnaREgina 0
MAMA: Motherhood Around the Globe 0
Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible 27
Maurizio Cattelan: All App 0
Medical Museion 10
MONA / Museum of Old & New Art 1
Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago 2
Musée Bonnard 1
MuseoTour 1
Museum Analytics 30
Museum Metadata Exchange (MME) 1
MuseumApp 0 1
Nancy Grossman: Tough Life Diary video 1
National Galleries of Scotland 0
National Park Service Museum Collections website 0
Nunavik: A Land, Its People 0
Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art at the Smithsonian 1
Ohio as America 0
Open Images: the open-minded media platform 0
Owney The Dog Twitter 2
Picturebank: Images for Learning 0
Plikt. Plikt? Plikt! 1
QRator 1
Reciprocal Research Network 2
Responsive website for Amsterdam Museumnight 4
Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing 0
Scripto: Crowdsourcing Documentary Transcription 0
September 11: Teaching Contemporary History 0
Set In Style:The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels iPad App 0
Shapeshifting – Transformations in Native American Art 3
Smithsonian Wild 0
South Australian Community History 0
Split Second: Indian Paintings 0
Stillspotting 0
The Jerusalem of Lithuania: The Story of the Jewish Community of Vilna 0
The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection 1
The London Library 0
The National Gallery Technical Bulletin 1
The National Gallery Virtual Tour 4
The Textile Museum: Green-The Color and The Cause 0
The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean 0
The Vlog Project 0
UVaM 5
Viewshare 0
Vishnu’s Avatars 0
Voices of the First World War 5
Walker Art Center 3
Wondermind 2 0
Xwashier 1
Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art 0


After the popular vote, the jury voted for the following winners in ten categories:

Audio/Visual/Podcast: The Vlog Project
Education: Beyond the Chalkboard
(with Honorable Mention to Wondermind)
Exhibition: Split Second: Indian Paintings
Innoative/Experimental: Walker Art Center
Long-lived: National Galleries of Scotland
Mobile: ArtClix
(with Honorable Mention to MuseumApp)
Museum Professional: Museum Analytics
Research/Online Collection: Collections at The Met
(with Honorable Mention to MME)
Social Media: Kermandec Expedition blog
Small: It’s Elemental
OVERALL: Walker Art Center
People’s Choice (see above): Museum Analytics

What would a list of critical questions about the current financial crisis in the museum sector look like?

By Biomedicine in museums

Did you ever feel you lacked an overview of how the current European financial crisis affects museums and the culture sector as a whole?

I found a list of questions asked by the museum directors, fund-raisers, marketing managers, policy-makers etc. around Europe at the moment:

  • How can cultural heritage be an economic driver?
  • How can its economic impact be measured?
  • What are the key technological innovations which have useful applications for the sector?
  • Gimmick or gold dust – how can practitioners identify what technological developments create real impact and help organisations meet their objectives?
  • How is new technology being used creatively to improve the visitor experience and engage new audiences?
  • Can innovative technology be used effectively for a modest budget or does it always require a substantial investment?
  • How do you future-proof investment in technology and avoid it becoming obsolete?
  • What are the key drivers that will influence the shape of the sector in the next 10 years?
  • What are the main challenges that need to be faced and what are the opportunities that can be harnessed?
  • How can marketing strategies help organisations survive the current economic downturn?
  • How can marketing practitioners still deliver results with dwindling budgets?
  • In particular case studies are sought which have made the most of social media and/or operate on a shoestring budget.
  • How can cultural heritage be used effectively in regeneration schemes?
  • How can the impact of heritage-led regeneration be evaluated?
  • What strategies are being used to develop new audiences for heritage sites and museums?
  • How can venues attract diverse audiences and compete with so many other demands on people’s time?
  • How can the local community be engaged and turned into frequent visitors?
  • What will encourage families and young people to visit?
  • As the sector faces devastating funding cuts, what alternative methods can organisations use to generate income?
  • What can the cultural heritage sector learn from business approaches?

(from the Culture Matters 2012 website).

The problem with the list is it’s managerial lingo throughout. I wonder what a corresponding list of critical museum questions would look like? Slavoj, where are you?

(the Slavoj Žižek image is from Verso Books)

Attending academic conferences is a waste of time, money and environmental resources — and intellectual energy

By Biomedicine in museums

Every time I see a conference call for papers in my field of expertise these days, I’m thinking: could this meeting have been organised on Twitter or Google+ or some other online platform instead?

I’d rather participate in an academic discussion on my iPad at home or in a café than sitting in an ugly meeting room in an anonymous hotel somewhere in the middle of global nowhere. Better take a couple of rounds of discussions on Twitter than waiting for a mic to be passed down the aisle of a crowded conference room and then trying to hear what’s being said through the noise of the air-condition. Not to mention trying to have serious ‘discussions’ with people in the breaks between sessions, when everyone is running frantically around to find a toilet before trying to locate the next meeting room.

Going to conferences more and more feels like a kind of ritualised masochism. You’re time-lagged and sleep-deprived and are fed tasteless transfat-saturated cookies or small sandwiches with processed meat on soft white bread. Travelling is a waste of time, money and environmental resources: it drains your research grant for money that could have been used more productively, produces unnecessary tons of carbon dioxide, and helps transnational hotel chains increase their profit margins.

It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating again: Twitter is, in my experience, an almost perfect medium for academic discussions. I know: 140 characters seems ridiculously short, especially for academics who are used to writing books. But think again:

  • Twitter sessions allow many discussants to join the conversation.
  • Session are rapid and facilitate easy turn-taking; you don’t need to struggle for speaking time.
  • Formal authority doesn’t count (it doesn’t matter if you’re a professor or a young grad student); only the strength of the argument counts.
  • Twitter culture doesn’t give any room for pontificators or discussants who speak way too looong.
  • Sessions can be spontaneous or planned, intense or lazy, existentially loaded or technically straight. They can last for 30 seconds or 5 hours, depending on the issue at hand, the interest of the participants and the power of the argument.
  • Your personal features don’t matter: You can be a stutterer without being disclosed as such, and you can participate even if you have bad hair or a bad breath or forgot to apply your favourite deodorant.
  • And technically, it’s a piece of cake.

Again 140 characters isn’t much. But it’s more than enough for an elevator pitch. And if you have more on your mind, you can always link to a blog post.

Artificial insemination

By Biomedicine in museums

Nina Katchadourian‘s ‘Artificial Insemination’ (C-print, 20 x 20 inches, 1998)

A “very spontaneous” piece of work she writes:

a handful of tadpoles in water all fished out of a rainwater pond, a dinner plate from the cupboard, and a black t-shirt I was wearing at the time. A deliberate scrambling of the iconic scientific image of ‘when life begins’.

This is her only ‘biomedical’ art work — otherwise her work during the last two decades is mainly inspired by nature and maps (see much more here).

Hat tip to Jim Edmonson, who just drew my attention to Katchatourian’s ingenious ‘Seat Assignment: Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style‘, a series of photographs, video and still images made in flight using only a mobile phone camera.