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March 2013

A research spirit and experimental attitude in museums

By Biomedicine in museums

Ken Arnold (Wellcome Collection) and I had a joint sesssion titled “Integrating research, acquisitioning, curation, exhibition making and events in museums” at the Danish national museum meeting in Horsens, two weeks ago. Based on this predistributed session abstract:

Drawing on our experiences from the Medical Museion and the Wellcome Collection, respectively, we suggest that a successful and productive in­tegration of these functions of the museum does not involve creating or­ganisational structures, but rather the cultivation of curiosity and a ‘will to inquire’. A research spirit can stimulate exhibitions, events and curator­ship, and vice versa the handling of material objects can give rise to new and interesting research problems.

we gave two short introductory talks followed by a long general discussion. Here’s my (untitled) intro talk.

Ken Arnold and I are running two venues which are in some ways very similar and yet quite different.

Similar in the sense that we address some of the basic questions concerning human existence – questions about life and death, well-being and disease. We’re dealers in the sublime – because we investigate the future prospects of the human body which are simultaneously very frightening and deeply fascinating.

But different in the sense that the Wellcome Collection is extremely well-endowed and situated in one of the busiest roads in a globalised Metropolis with hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, whereas the Medical Museion is placed in a sleepy part of Wonderful Copenhagen with a much smaller budget and one-tenth of their visitor numbers.

However, our venues are also both similar and different with respect to the theme of this conference – in the way we handle the interaction between the activities we mention in the title of this session: research, acquisitioning, curation, exhibition making and events. In this respect, the similarity between is that we see this integration not as a organisational question, but a question of spirit.

The fundamental spirit here is what we call a research attitude. As we say in the abstract, we both think in terms of what we call “the cultivation of curiosity and a ‘will to inquire’”.

This is an attitude that goes both ways. It means making exhibitions, launch events, handle the collections, and bring in new acquisitions in the spirit of curiosity. It means trying to make all such activities inquiry-driven. On the other hand, it also means that the handling of material objects, images and archives, and the making of exhibitions, is a daily generator of interesting research questions.

The slight difference between our venues in this respect is in the way we have moved towards this position. Wellcome Collection started as an exhibition and event venue, and then Ken, very much through his own initiative and his own research background in the history of science and history of museums, brought an attitude of research, curiousity, and playfulness into these public engagement activities.

Medical Museion, on the other hand, grew out of an academic research project, which then gradually broadened to include more and more of the traditional museum activities. I came to Copenhagen a decade ago — to what was then called a medical history museum and basically was a huge collection of medical historical artefacts — as a professor in the history of medicine and with a traditional university mindset, meaning that research and teaching (from undergraduate to PhD level) is the basic rationale for everything one does.

At that time I was still thinking of research exclusively in terms of the publication of scholarly books on serious university presses and research articles in peer-reviewed journals (as most of my university colleagues still do). From the university’s and my own point of view at that time, public engagement, including exhibitions and events, were pretty subordinate activities. Not to speak about collections; they weren’t even mentioned in the university’s strategy documents and in my view they were largely a burden and a nuisance.

But during the last ten years, I have gradually widened and broadened my notion of research. I began to think about collecting (acquisitions) and exhibition making, and even public events, not just as outreach, or at best as raw experiences for writing research publications, but as a form of creative research activity in their own right. And from then on I began to think about everything we do in the museum from the point of view of the researcher and in terms of an experimental mindset.

To be experimental here means that we try, as far as possible, to think about all activities at Medical Museion — exhibition making, event making, acquisitions, collection management, organising seminars, etc. – as ongoing experiments. We continuously try to work out new and interesting activities, which haven’t been tried before, instead of applying already existing ideas. That part of the rationale of being a university museum.

  • For example, we’ve experimented with very narrow exhibition formats, e.g. in the Obesity exhibition, which is not a historical exhibition about obesity as a cultural phenomenon, but focuses on a very special kind of surgical operation, called gastric bypass, and other cutting-edge metabolic research projects at the medical faculty. The experimental attitude here was to try transforming some of the basic concepts and aesthetic aspects of the clinic and medical research laboratory into the exhibition space.
  • Another example is our current temporary exhibition Biohacking, which is an experiment in bringing do-it-yourself biology activists into the museum, letting them coproduce a combination of working laboratory, exhibition room, event and public conference around the topic of biohacking.
  • A third example is that we’re experimenting with the borderlines between research seminar, curatorial workspace and event. Last week we organized an international workshop called It’s Not What You Think, where we gathered some 40 scholars to not only discuss but also to handle and curate objects in our collections.

To have a research attitude in these and other cases means not only to conceive and perform them as experiments, but also allow time to reflect upon the experiments, and write about and publish them – to bring the experiences into the public sphere. So we still publish a lot in traditional research journals, but increasingly we’ve begun to experiment with the publication medium. So we’re putting a lot emphasis on using a variety of social media – our combined blog and website, Facebook, Google+, and especially Twitter as a medium for discussing the experiments.

Summing up, in my view, museum should, to a much larger extent, become ‘museological laboratories’. Actually, I don’t think museology, or museum studies, should be taught in courses in academic departments separated from museum practice. Museology is not a set of dogmas or principles that can be learned from textbooks and lectures and then applied in museums — it is an experimental and research attitude that must permeat the daily museum work from early morning to late evening.