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November 2012

Is collecting contemporary historical objects a 'risky business'?

By Biomedicine in museums

Steven Lubar — director of the public humanities programme at Brown University and keen observer of things museological — has just drawn his Twitter followers’ attention to a “nice” blog post on the problems of collecting contemporary artefacts written by National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens.

Stephens’ blog post revolves around Stanley (a driver-less vehicle that won a historic off-road American robot race in 2005), which she collected for the museum’s robot collection in 2009, and now takes as her point of departure for some reflections about “the risky business” of collecting contemporary history.

Risky? Created by the Stanford Racing Team, Stanley was “a giant technical step forward for autonomous vehicles”, a technology which may soon help reduce accidents and highway congestion and let drunk people drive home in their own car. Nevada, California and Florida already permit them on state roads. Sounds to me like a pretty obvious artefact to acquire.

But Carlene Stephens was nevertheless somewhat uneasy about bringing Stanley into the national collection and about loaning it to the National Air and Space Museum’s new Time and Navigation exhibition (which is bound to open in March next year).

She was “nervous”, she writes, because collecting Stanley stood in contrast to her historical training and interests. As a curator, she was used to make acquisition decisions about artefacts for which there is “a body of existing research and documentation that verifies the importance of an object from long ago”. So usually, as she poignantly puts it, she practices “collecting from inside a comfort zone” (I like that expression!)

But when collecting contemporary objects like Stanley, she thinks that she “comes close to predicting the future”. And that, in her view, is why collecting contemporary historical artefacts is such a “risky business”:

Curators have to make educated guesses that today’s technical innovation will be tomorrow’s historic milestone. Curators who do contemporary collecting take the risk that an object making headlines today will remain representative of some important event or illustrative of how Americans absorbs new technologies. Such an object might even carry material evidence that inspires our successors to dig deeper into research we haven’t even imagined yet. Or maybe collecting such an object won’t have any of those useful outcomes. Maybe it will simply lie fallow forever after in storage. As I say, it’s a risky business.

Even though this particular artefact didn’t turn out an acquisition failure (“so far Stanley doesn’t disappoint” at all), Stephens’ argument is that collecting contemporary artefacts is perpetually risky because we have to make “educated guesses” about the future historical milestones.

Are museums really in the business of making “educated guesses” when they collect the contemporary material culture?. I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think Carlene Stephens’ argument is basically flawed and a major obstacle for developing good practice for contemporary collecting. And the flaw, in my opinion, is the presupposition that museums engage in collecting in order to preserve “tomorrow’s historic milestones”.

The presupposition is flawed, because there is no way we can know what “tomorrow’s historic milestones are”. We cannot predict what future historians and museum visitors would be interested in seeing in 10, 25 or 100 years from now. Actually, we don’t even know if anyone will be interested in historical museum artefacts then. Or if museums as we know them today will exist in 2050. Maybe there will be no historians and curators! And do we have any reason whatsoever to expect that people will be interested in “milestones” (whatever that is)?

In my view, collecting for a ‘known unknown’ (‘known’ because historical time won’t stop, and ‘unknown’ because we cannot look into the crystal ball) is probably the worst rationale there is for new museum acquisitions. I suggest instead that it makes much more sense to collect whatever today’s museum curators and the public at large find fascinating and are willing to investigate their professional or lay enthusiasm and extra working hours to acquire.

After all, what fills most museum reserve storage areas today is the accumulated results of earlier curators’ and amateur collectors’ passion for what was then contemporary material culture. For example, Henry Wellcome‘s collecting “strategy” was to bring in as much fascinating stuff about medicine and ethnography, both contemporary and of the past, he could lay his hands on. The result is one of the world’s richest and most wonderful museum collections.

Staff from Medical Museion collecting contemporary medical objects at the museum’s annual Garbage Day, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Similarly hundreds of historical medical collections around the world are the result of more or less serendipitous collecting by medical doctors and happy amateurs. Nobody told these people to be nervous or to avoid the “risky business” of collecting the medical artefacts they saw around them — artefacts which they, for whatever more or less irrational reason, thought were worth preserving.

Had the curators and collectors of the past been as anxious as Carlene Stephens we would hardly have any museums today. And that’s the major problem with her argument. If the idea of collecting as a “risky business” becomes widespread and if museums curators and the amateur collectors become increasingly nervous and anxious about acquiring contemporary culture, museums of the future will definitely have a huge lacuna in their holdings from the late 20th and early 21st century.

The only thing that’s risky about collecting contemporary artefacts is the belief it’s risky.

Caterina Albano on Fear and Art in the Contemporary World — a good topic for a medical exhibition

By Biomedicine in museums

Caterina Albano is one of those interesting combined scholars-curators, who works on topics that any medical museum director would love to include in the portfolio.

Having a PhD background in Renaissance Studies, Albano focuses her research and curatorial work on projects that relate bioscience, art and culture and explore topics like the unconscious, the history of the body, neuroscience, and genetics; and she is also interested in the theory of curating. Her work as curator includes research of Spectacular Bodies at Hayward Gallery (2000) and Seduced as Barbican Art Gallery (2007), and she has co-curated exhibitions like Head On at Science Museum/Wellcome Trust (2002) and Crossing Over: art, science, biotechnologies at The Royal Institution (2008), and so forth.

Albano’s current interest is in the cultural history of emotions, which has now resulted in a book on Reaktion Books titled Fear and Art in the Contemporary World. It is one of those new releases that I spontaneously feel I would like to read, even though I haven’t read any reviews yet.

What triggers my interest in the book is that fear is apparently not my own private little problem but according to Albano is something that pervades contemporary Western societies: Fear of environmental destruction, fear of new technologies, fear of the ‘others’, of terrorists, paedophiles, cultural dissolution — and not least, of course, fear of disease and death.

According to Reaktion Books’ advertisement, she examines this ‘culture of fear’ in terms of an ‘aesthetics of fear’ and through the lens of contemporary art (drawing on a whole array of artists, most of whom I’ve never heard of before), and on the history of medicine, art and culture.

Hvorfor spørge to kolleger – når du kan spørge 2000?

By Biomedicine in museums

Sidste nummer af Ugeskrift for Læger indholder et journalistisk referat af det seminar om sociale medier og medicin, som vi har fortalt om tidligere.

Der var indledninger ved Richard Smith, tidligere chefredaktør for British Medical Journal (BMJ), som er aktiv fortaler for ”open access publishing” og meget aktiv bruger af sociale medier (, og læge Bertalan Meskó, der er grundlægger af og en af verdens ledende specialister inden for medicin og sociale medier.

Efter hovedoplægholderne kunne publikum stille spørgsmål til et panel bestående af hovedoplægsholderne, læge Charlotte Strøm og cand.scient.san.publ. Nina Bjerglund Andersen.

Sandra Dudley is giving a seminar on object-centred work in museums (Copenhagen, Thursday 15 November)

By Biomedicine in museums

On next Thursday, 15 November, museum and material culture scholar Sandra Dudley will speak about “The possibilities of things: an object-centred view and its implications for museums” at Medical Museion’s MUSE-seminar (abstract below).

Sandra Dudley has a background in anthropology, she has been, among other places, at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Smithsonian in Washington DC, before coming to the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, where she is now Director of the school’s Exhibitions and Collections. She is also chief co-editor of the forthcoming new annual journal Museum Worlds: Advances in Research.

Among her edited books are Museum Materialities (Routledge 2010) which explores ways in which “things and people mutually interact, and raise questions about how objects carry meaning and feeling, the distinctions between objects and persons, particular qualities of the museum as context for person-object engagements, and the active and embodied role of the museum visitor”. She has recently published a reader on material culture studies and museums, titled Museum Objects (Routledge 2012).


This lecture considers some of the perspectives within the current interest in objects and materiality in museum contexts, before going on to exemplify aspects of the author’s own current work. Highlighting such issues as surface, qualia and displacement, the talk will discuss how this and other object-centred work augments and problematizes our understandings of museums, definable as those institutions are by their particular approaches to the conservation and re-contextualisations of things. Indeed, it will be argued, an object-centred view has profound implications for envisioning the possibilities of things.

The talk takes place Thursday 15 November, 3-4.30 pm in Medical Museion’s Auditorium in 62 Bredgade, Copenhagen, and is followed by nice snacks and (non)-alcoholic drinks in the reception room.

A video of the talk will be made available online shortly after the seminar. Link will appear here.

For earlier talks in the MUSE-seminar series, see here.

Cross-fertilisation between sci comm and STS

By Biomedicine in museums

The Canadian Journal of Communication is planning a special issue on possible cross-fertilisations between communication studies and science and technology studies (STS).

Very interesting for us here at Medical Museion because many of us work at the crossroads of medical humanities, science communication and science and technology studies.

As the editors of the special issue say in the call for papers, a growing number of communication researchers have been “employing conceptual tools and methods offered by STS to assist in understanding the sociotechnical character and situatedness of media and information technologies and their configurations”. And, vice versa, STS researchers are becoming inspired by communication studies as they examine phenomena that “weave together the material and symbolic”.

The focus of the special issue is to continue the dialogue between communication studies and STS, e.g., by exploring the historical evolution of the two fields, their points of conceptual, methodological, and theoretical intersection, and articulating explicit bridges between communication studies and STS.

If anyone would like to write a 7000-9000 words long paper along these lines, take a look at CJC’s website. Deadline for submission of papers is 15 March, 2013. I guess they will be peer-reviewed.