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Monthly Archives

December 2012

Danish postdoc fellowship in art and biosciences

By Biomedicine in museums

Here at Medical Museion we’re interested in hosting future recipients of the recently announced Mads Øvlisen postdoc fellowship in art and biosciences.

Beginning in 2013, the Novo Nordisk Foundation awards a 2-year postdoc fellowship in art and biosciences, aimed at giving “outstanding younger researchers the possibility, as part of their research career, to conduct larger high-quality research projects, and through that yield a significant contribution to art-related research in Denmark”. The total award is 1 mill. for salary and operational expenses.

The Foundation is looking for applicants “whose research project examines the interdisciplinary field of art and life sciences, including technological offshoots of science”. Applicants must have obtained a PhD or have similar scientific qualifications, and note that the foundation doesn’t give fellowships to applicants who have already begun a postdoc programme.

Applications (in Danish or English) must be submitted electronically via the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s web portal by 1 February, 2013 before 4 pm. The selection procedure will take place by the end of March 2013 and the fellowships will be available from April 2013 and  not later than April 2014.

Medical Museion has no part whatsoever in the announcement or selection process, but — given our research profile and earlier practice in the medicine-art/design interface — we’re of course very interested in considering hosting the successful fellowship applicant. So if you are thinking of applying for the fellowship and not yet have any affiliation with a Danish university or research institution, you’re welcome to contact us (for addresses, see here).

(credit for feature image, see here)

Creating life: from alchemy to synthetic biology

By Biomedicine in museums

One of the things I’ve learned from the history of science during my academic career is that the historicist critique of presentism — that is, the critique that says that historical actors and events shall be interpreted in terms of their own time horizon and not from the vantage point of the present — is a lofty ideal for historical research, but untenable in practice.

The basic flaw in radical anti-presentist (anti-whiggish) thinking is, of course, that all historical questions are asked from the viewpoint of the present horizon of interpretation. The present situation not only gives us new tools and concepts to analyse the past, but also identifies issues and problems which the actors of the past didn’t pay attention to or didn’t understand the same way as we do.

An example from my world of life sciences is last year’s conference in the series Ischia Summer School on the History of the Life Sciences titled ‘Participation and Exclusion from the Renaissance to the Present Day’. The terms ‘participation’ and ‘exclusion’ are our present terms for celebrating the advances in participatory democracy, and such they are very whiggish: historical actors before the 1980s didn’t think of themselves in terms of ‘participation’ and ‘exclusion’.

I’m not critical of reinterpreting history in these terms (it’s perfectly legitimate) but we shouldn’t forget that when we do so, it is difficult to uphold the radical critique of presentism and whig history.

Next year’s conference, ‘Creating Life: From Alchemy to Synthetic Biology’ too illustrates the impossibility of radical anti-presentism. The 13th in the Ischia series, it “aims to uncover the long-term history of the human production of life and living beings as well as the contexts of practices that defined the border between the living and the non-living, and hence what it could mean to produce one from the other”.

However, for centuries after the alchemistic era, natural history was about classifying the diversity of the living world of animals and plants, and later biology aimed to understand and explain the functions and mechanisms of living beings. Not in order to produce life, but to maintain and govern it.

In contrast, the production of living beings, which is at the center of synthetic biology, is a very late project. Frankenstein and other para-biological figures aside, the possibility of creating life from non-living molecules only became reality in the 1950s with the Urey-Miller experiment. To see a line from alchemy to synthetic biology — a “long-term history of the human production of life and living beings” — only makes sense from the horizon of contemporary synthetic biology.

That said, this sounds like a great conference. If I wasn’t too senior and too addicted to long summer vacations in Sweden I would immediately send my application form off, not least to get an opportunity to meet and learn from the distinguished faculty involved, including Peter Murray Jones, Jessica Riskin, James E. Strick, Helen A. Curry, Luis Campos, Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Stefan Helmreich, Wolfgang Schäffner and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (and probably also the summer-school directors: Janet Browne, Christiane Groeben, Nick Hopwood, and Staffan Müller-Wille).

It takes place at the island of Ischia outside Naples, 29 June — 6 July 2013. A detailed theme description and programme will be made available on-line in early January. Applications are to be sent to before 15 February, incl. a brief cv, a statement specifying academic experience and interest in the course topic (max. 300 words), and a letter of recommendation.

(feature image credit: NIH)


De udviklingshæmmedes, børnehjemsbørnenes og de sindslidendes historie i perioden 1945-1976

By Biomedicine in museums

En af Medicinsk Museions mangeårige medarbejdere, lektor Jesper Vaczy Kragh, har fået en to-årig bevilling fra Socialstyrelsen til et socialhistorisk projekt som skal kikke på de udviklingshæmmedes, børnehjemsbørns og sindslidendes historie i perioden 1945-1976.

Projektet, som er et samarbejde med Svendborg Museum og Syddansk Universitets Center for Velfærdsforskning, er tilkommet efter at Kristeligt Dagblad satte fingeren på de udviklingshæmmedes situation på de store omsorgsinstitutioner i efterkrigstiden. Det fik daværende socialminister Benedikte Kiær (Konservativ) at tage initiativ til af afsætte 7,7 mio kr til forskning (5,7 mio kr) og formidling (2 mio kr).

En hjørnesten i projektet er at udforske og formidle historien ud fra et klientperspektiv. Derfor skal projektet indsamle mundtlige fortællinger fra ældre udviklingshæmmede og sindslidende og fra tidligere børnehjemsbørn. Se mere her og her.

For dem som ikke ved det, er Jesper uddannet historiker fra Roskilde Universitet. Han skrev sin ph.d.-afhandling med Medicinsk Museion og har derefter været ansat som forsker på eksterne forskningsmidler ved Medicinsk Museion.

Jesper har arbejdet med centrale videnskabelige, filosofiske, religiøse og kulturelle strømninger i mellemkrigstiden og har skrevet bøger og en lang række artikler om kulturhistorie, psykiatri og spiritisme. Han er måske bedst kendt i Danmark for sin forskning i den danske psykiatris historie, bla. for antologien Psykiatriens historie i Danmark (2008) og monografien Det hvide snit 2010, som for øvrigt blev ‘shortlistet’ til Weekendavisens Litteraturpris i 2011 og til Årets Historiske Bog i 2011.

Jesper vil forhåbentlig skrive mere om projektet her på bloggen fremover.

Ambient plasticity: aesthetics of the hospital

By Biomedicine in museums

One of our PhD-students, Anette Stenslund, is currently visiting researcher at the Centre for Sensory Studies, Concordia University, Montreal.

Under the heading “Ambient plasticity: aesthetics of the hospital”, she investigates everyday aesthetics and is currently exploring the atmosphere of the hospital by emphasizing smell impressions:

To most people, the hospital smell is unpleasant and uncomfortable: Why is that? How does it smell and how do smell experiences take effect when entering this functional environment loaded with gravity? It seems that the smell of the hospital has turned into a myth: Why is it so? The work suggests a multi-sensuous approach for perceiving phenomena like this. There is more to smell experiences than pure smell as they are e.g. ‘coloured’ by moods, sensations and a being-in-the-world in time and space. As follows, the vapours of the hospital deserve further cultural investigation.

The epistemological challenge dealing with smell (a phenomenon hard to grasp in words) requires a phenomenological sensitive aesthetical approach. This is accomplished through cross readings of phenomenological thinkers comprising philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural geographers respectively.

(from here)

Mannequins in museums — their present use, aesthetic reactions and history

By Biomedicine in museums

Until recently I thought the use of mannequins in museums was an almost extinct species of exhibition design.

We removed the last mannequins from Medical Museion’s public exhibitions more than a decade ago and have only kept two of them in the staff area for the fun of scaring the shit out of new employees and visiting researchers.

But now that curators Bente Vinge Pedersen and Daniel Noesgaard got the excellent idea of using our remaining mannequins as silent actors in a 24 day long Yuelemedicalendar drama, my curiosity about mannequins (or manikins as they are sometimes spelt) was raised. Are there any serious museums that still use them?

A rapid web search resulted in some interesting mannequin images. The very first website I opened — that of the Danish Museum of Nursing History —  actually presents a series of good-looking mannequins on the frontpage.

After an hour’s browsing of images of museum mannequins I realised I have to revise my prejudice. Turns out that mannequins still loom large in the museum world, and that there are companies, like this one, that produce and sell them.

And for some reason it looks like “France has a thing for putting glorious creepy mannequins in museums”. (Can anyone confirm this? Or does it just reflect a prejudice that French museums are backward, designwise?)

Even museums who don’t use them for display purposes are apparently fascinated by having them in their collections, like the Chicago History Museum and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery:

Mannequin morgue in the Chicago History Museum

Mannequins in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The aesthetic response to mannequins differ quite a lot. Since so many museums still use them in displays and keep them in storage, there must be quite a few visitors and curators that like them. Most casual commentators on the web dislike them, however. A common complaint is that they look too scary: “there is one thing that I have a fairly irrational fear about and that is mannequins in museums and displays”, writes a commentator. “Creepy things that pretend to be real, but don’t really look real, like mannequins in museums, creep me out”, writes another.

I cannot make up my mind as to whether they are just terrible or alluringly retro-chic. Bente and Daniel probably have the same ambiguous feeling about them (I haven’t asked them yet), because why should they otherwise use them as props for a whole Yulemedicalender (in spite of what they say, it’s not an advent calendar, because there is nothing religious about it).

Second question: When were these creepy monsters introduced in museums? I haven’t found any historical account of the use of mannequins (manikins) in exhibitions. Can anyone help me out here?