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January 2013

Opening the biohacking lab at Medical Museion

By Biomedicine in museums

Here’s my short speech at the opening of Biohacking: Do it yourself! last Thursday evening:

In true hacker style, this opening is somewhat ad hoc-ish. We will spend about 20 minutes up here in the old auditorium; several people will say a few introductory words each, in several languages.

Then — because there isn’t room for us all down there — the speakers will go downstairs to the biohacker lab, where they will make the official opening (clip, clip with the scissor) while the web camera projects on the screen. And finally you will get drinks and popcorn from the microwave while you can move freely around between this floor and the biohacker lab.

So why are we doing this? What’s a biohacker lab doing in a medical museum and in this venerable old building from 1787? It’s not an irrelevant question, because some of our visitors think a museum like ours should restrict itself to real medical history – the history of epidemic diseases, surgical instruments from the 18th and 19th enturies, gory human body parts etc.

OK, believe it or not, we’re still in the history business. We’re still displaying things from the gruesome medical past. But we are also very eager to engage with the present and the future. As some of you know,  our latest exhibition is about the current obesity epidemic and the brand new treatment method called gastric bypass surgery that accidentally also cures type 2 diabetes.

In the exhibition (or rather installation) you’ll see tonight, we’re taking yet another step away from the past, to the future of biology and medicine — to the emerging worlds of synthetic biology and biohacking.

Other speakers will say more about synthetic biology and biohacking in a few moments. I’ll just give you the background to this project.

The idea behind the exhibition/installation started three years ago, when some ten small European science centers and art institutions met at Le Laboratorie in Paris to prepare an application from the European Community for an art-science project, called StudioLab.

One of the themes we decided on at the Paris meeting synthetic biology – a very hot topic among life scientists. Using small parts of life to build more complicated living parts. Like in the famous Lego bricks.

What was then, three years ago, a pretty vague idea, has now materialized in a very concrete art-design-science installation –thanks to an interdisciplinary collaboration between a couple of biohackers and scientists, an installation designer, a science communication specialist and a historian of ancient technology. They come from the UK, Germany, the United States, and Denmark, so this is a truly international project team, based locally here in Copenhagen.

Before I give the word over to these people who made this come true, I will say that it hasn’t escaped my notice that the idea of biohacking may have further implications for a museums like ours, and maybe for museums in general.

Because there’s something in the hacker culture – whether it’s computer hacking or biohacking – that points to the ongoing cultural change in the museum world. As I said to one of the biohackers at dinner earlier tonight: museums are struggling to become more open, to involve their users, to draw on the creativity of non-professionals, to crowdsource the cultural heritage, to engage citizens in the construction and re-construction of collections and exhibitions. The do-it-yourself attitude is spreading to museums too.

This is what some museum people call ‘museum 2.0‘. It’s pretty similar to what social media are doing to the world of publishing right now. Or what biohackers are trying to do for the life sciences.

As a museum I think we have very much to learn from the hacking culture – and I’m proud that we have been able to engage people from the local biohacker community here in Copenhagen to help us – not only to open this particular installation – but in the long run help us rethink what a museum might be.

Now, I will give the word to Rüdiger Trojok, a molecular biologist who’s currently finishing his Masters at the Technical University of Denmark; Malthe Borch, who has a masters in Biological engineering, and who’s a co-founder of the local biohacker space BiologiGaragen here in Copenhagen; and Sara Krugman, who’s an interaction designer, and currently completing her masters at The Copenhagen School of Interaction Design.

(Rüdiger, Malthe and Sara give short speeches)

Thank you, Rüdiger, Malthe and Sara! And now over to Emil Polny, who’s a project coordinator at the Center for Synthetic Biology here at the University of Copenhagen.

(Emil gives a short speech)

Thank you, Emil! And finally I’ll give the word to the people here at Medical Museion who have organised and curated the biohacking space, namely Karin Tybjerg, who’s an associate professor with a background in the history of science and technology and Louise Whiteley, who’s assistant professor with a background in theoretical neuroscience and science communication studies.

(Karin and Louise give short speeches)

Thank you Karin and Louise! And now comes the tricky logistical part of the opening. I will ask you all to wait here for two minutes – and we’ll show a short video while you wait — while our presenters walk down to the biohacking lab to open it. The reason is the lab room is so small, we cannot all be in there – so they will cut the ribbon in front of a video camera – and we’ll transmit it over the web and stream up on the screen behind me. And after they have cut the ribbon you can do whatever you want – take drink, eat some popcorn, sit and talk – or even go down and visit the biohacker space.

Thank you very much!  Enjoy your evening.

Objects that were demonstrated, touched, fingered, fondled, caressed and stroken at the tactile aesthetics seminar yesterday

By Biomedicine in museums

Here are some of the objects that were demonstrated (touched, fingered, fondled, caressed, stroken etc.) during the touching seminar yesterday.

Here are bundles of hair from an often-caressed cat:

And here is a toy: 


At least two participants brought coffee/tea mugs, and two of us chose to bring small objects that they like to play with to distract their thoughts, a chestnut and some paper clips:








A cool computer mouse, of course: 

And so on and so forth:

And I, finally, brought my office chessboard, to illustrate the question whether chess is a purely cognitive game, or if the enjoyment is enhanced by playing it tactically: 






This seminar was an appetiser only. We’ll soon be back with discussions about tactile aesthetics in museums in general and science and medical museums in particular.

Next scheduled event in the material aesthetics meeting series is the workshop IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK: COMMUNICATING MEDICAL MATERIALITIES, which we organise here at Medical Museion 8-9 March with about 30 participants.

Everyday objects you enjoy touching — investigating tactile aesthetics

By Biomedicine in museums

During the last 48 hours my mind has mulled over the latest announcement for Medical Museion’s internal Thursday lunch seminar series — with our own PhD student Emma Peterson, who will present her work on methods for investigating tactile aesthetics.

It’s a PhD project within the framework of Jan Eric Olséns project on the history of blindness from a material culture perspective. That’s a very interesting project in itself, but that’s not what has occupied my mind the last two days.

What has kept me busy is that Emma’s seminar will not be a conventional academic presentation only; she has announced that it’s better called an “experiment”, because she wants all of us each to “bring an everyday object you enjoy touching”.

I find this assignment very provocative. Not only because a combination of ordinary embarassment and university etiquette will probably keep us from bringing some our most enjoyable touch objects to the seminar table. But also because I’m really at loss when it comes to selecting an everyday object I really enjoy touching.

Not because I don’t like touching things. I usually do. But because I’m not used to reflect on the act of touching — and selecting an object forces me to think more systematically about the role of touch among my personal everyday aesthetic preferences.

I’m used to reflect about my visual and auditory preferences. I know exactly which books I enjoy reading because they produce pleasurable imaginations in my mind. Same with films and images I enjoy viewing.

I can also easily make a long list of people I enjoy being together with (and a somewhat shorter of people whose company I don’t enjoy). Or birds voices I like listening to. Or places I like to come back to. Or houses I like being in. And so on: cities, landscapes, streets, museums, etc.

But material things I enjoy touching? My first thought was that I have a favourite tooth-brush, which I like holding in my hand. Then I came to think of some of our plates and cutlery at home that not only look nice, but also feel good to handle. And then I thought some of my clothes are better ‘touch objects’ for my skin than others.

Then I remembered that holding a baby is extremely enjoyable (but are babies ‘objects´?). And besides, as soon as we get into people-things, the discussion about the enjoyment of touching becomes charged.

Back to impersonal thing-touch. The iPhone, of course — a recent and very enjoyable touch object. The iPad too feels good to finger. Which made me think of books, not as objects of reading, but as objects of handling. The experience of reading a good book in hardback cover in certainly enjoyable — maybe that’s why people still buy hardbacks?

And then a whole tsunami of material objects came welling up. The touch of grass in the summer, the sense of forming snow balls in the winter. Holding a piece of raw wood. Stroking a raw stone surface. Caressing the cat …

Still, after 48 hours, Emma’s assignment for our Thursday seminar, occupies my thoughts. I’ve suddenly begun deliberately touching objects at home to find out which of them I really like (not many it turns out).

And I’m thinking: What does my ‘life of touching’ actually feel like? Which objects are pleasurable? Which enrich my everyday? Are scientific, medical or health-related objects among these?

This is going to be a radically mind-expanding seminar.

(feature image: ‘The Touch’, from R.W. Wertz and D.C. Wertz, Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America, 1989)

Museums Showoff next Thursday — including "Why the very idea of a science museum is just plain silly, but if we’re going to have them they should be less like Harrods and more like a junk yard"

By Biomedicine in museums

I just read about a great museum initiative in London — the Museums Showoff.

You may have heard about Science Showoff — a forum for all kinds of people working with science communication, who meet and share their work in a performance-based way, “and then chew it over with a pint in hand”. It’s very participatory, non-hierachical, and democratic — in other words, very Multitudinous.

Museums Showoff is the sister to Science Showoff, using the same basic idea and format “but filling the stage with people who work in, study or are interested in museums, libraries and collections rather than science” — “an open mic night featuring curators, conservators, librarians, collectors, Museum Studies students, archaeologists, social historians, educators, multimedia developers, explainers, visitors, theorists and everyone else associated with museums and library special collections” (I think they’ve listed all the relevant categories).

The format for this low-budget bimonthly event is emulation-worthy:

There are ten slots for presentation — each slot is 9 minutes each; some are for invited guests, others for first-come-first-slotted. After a short intro the signed-up performers take to the stage, where they might:

Show and tell:

  • Their new acquisition
  • Their favourite or a ‘star’ object from their collection
  • An interesting find from the stores
  • Something they’ve conserved
  • Their current research
  • Run a group handling session
  • Tell us about something they’ve dug up
  • Describe the weirdest thing in their collection


  • Their idea for their next exhibition
  • The most recent object their collection should acquire or dispose of
  • Road test ideas for exhibitions/public programmes/galleries
  • Tell us what a museum should be collecting and how
  • Tell us about research into what museums are doing and why
  • Demonstrate new digital projects/ideas/concepts

Or generally show off :

  • Showing a film or oral history project they’ve just made
  • Trying out a new demo or interactive exhibit
  • Practicing a new museum-based comedy set
  • Reading their latest poem/performing an interpretive dance about their museum work
  • Performing an 9-minute play aimed at museum audiences
  • Play their new song about the Tudors
  • Re-enact an historical event
  • Tell us about the latest behind-the-scenes goings on at their organization…

Or anything else!

With intermissions etc. they finish 2 1/2 hours later and then go over to beer and chatting.

Next Museums Showoff takes place on Thursday 17 January, with the following presenters:

Steve Cross – will be our compère for the night. What will he say about the Science Museum this time?

Katherine Curran – “Heritage Smells or The Terrible Fate of Tropical Ken”. Delivered entirely in verse, this will be both a description of my research project and an account of the dreadful things that happened to a Ken doll who found himself in one of UCL’s laboratories.

Danny Birchall ­– Why wrap the Freud Museum in ropes made of doll’s hair? Danny will present a lightning tour of artists’ interventions in museum spaces, from notorious pisstaker Marcel Duchamp to neo-neuroticist Alice Anderson.

Alice Bell ­– Why the very idea of a science museum is just plain silly, but if we’re going to have them they should be less like Harrods and more like a junk yard.

Alison Boyle & Harry Cliff – Higgs bosons, hadrons, high-energy physics … it’s a huge and incredibly complex machine, with lots of people busy doing things that nobody else understands. But that’s enough about the Science Museum. Find out what happened when Harry met Ali and the world of museums collided with the world of CERN.

Researchers in Museums – Gemma Angel, Sarah Chaney, Suzanne Harvey, Felicity Winkley, Lisa Plotkin, Tzu-i Liao and Alicia Thornton are a UCL-based gestalt entity whose mission is to engage the public with their research and UCL’s museum collections in ways never before explored. Bringing together their expertise in diverse subject areas, the team presents “Foreign Bodies” – their very first interdisciplinary group-curated exhibition, which opens in February 2013 at UCL.

Peter Ride – #Citizencurators was a twitter project that ran during the 2012 Olympics organised by Museum of London and Univ of Westminster. It’s goal was to collect Londoners response to living in London during the games – a social history for the museum collection. But it also also asked the question how can a museum collect tweets – as database, a visual object or a string of individual lines?

Hayley Kruger – is going to talk about some of the stranger steps on the path that paved the way to modern blood donation and provides a salutary warning of why it is unwise to be related to an anatomist and predecease them…!

The Ministry of Curiosity – will be recruiting for the newly founded collective dedicated to London’s museum social scene.

Jason Webber – Come the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, which Museum will give you the best chance of survival? Who has the collection and venue to hold off the slaving hordes of the un-dead?

At the Wilmington Arms, 69 Rosebery Ave, Clerkenwell, London, starting at 7pm.

Do I need to say I hope they’re live-streaming the whole event. Otherwise, I’m seriously contemplating producing some carbon dioxide to get a chance to hear Alice Bell argue for why science museums should be more like junk yards than department stores.

(Junk yard poster, credit:

(Thanks to David Pantalony for reminding me that you don’t easily burn carbon dioxide off 🙂