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Biomedicine in museums

3D-visualization in the life sciences — useful ideas for medical museum curators

By January 19, 2008No Comments

In May last year a workshop on visualizations in the life sciences (“Graphing Genes, Cells and Embryos”) was held in Naples. The papers included a number of historical studies of interest for displaying biomedicine in a museum context, including studies of the history of:

  • the visualization of chromosomes
  • 3D-models of the Golgi apparatus
  • representations of RNA
  • the use of physical models to explore protein structure
  • virtual 3D-embryos
  • representations of gene regulation and cell signalling pathways and networks

and so forth (the abstracts from the 2007 meeting have been put together on this website).

The 2007 workshop will be followed up by a meeting at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Berlin, June 11-15, 2008. This second meeting will focus on a  fascinating and useful topic for medical and life science museum curators, viz., “how the life sciences visually mastered to manifest the dimensionalities living organisms exhibit when taking shape”:

Our attention will direct towards scale and pattern of biological objects like embryos, cells and genes. To fully trace the (epistemic) steps of representing these 3D objects, the scientists will offer detailed information about their techniques, tricks and tools when producing and employing images of distinct scales and dimensions. Besides clarifying the process of image construction, they will explicate what their images reveal, what is filtered out, if so, why, and how the images render their research program. Scholars will supply these information with historical case studies on the changing practices of visualization, encompassing specific techniques, model organisms and styles of representation. Along the images they will suppose of controveries that still persist like a palimpset (e.g., fields), and elucidate why it sometimes takes decades until a crucial issue (fate or specification) is visualized realiter. The task of all participants will be to delineate an epistemic archeology of spatial forms which occur naturally beyond the range of unaided vision, e.g., rotating embryos, differentiating cells and their components, the fine structure of organisms, or yet the branching of species in models of evolution. In open discussions we will compare and contrast the differences in handling the images by scientists and humanists. The workshop fulfills two main purposes, (1) it reconstructs some chapters of the visual biography of genes, cells, and embryos in the life sciences and related specialties (e.g., architecture), and (2) it traces the influence of specific issues, like dimensionality, scale and pattern on biological imagery from around 1800 to the 21st century.


The organizers welcome contributions from fields like the life sciences, mathematics, scientific illustration, architecture, history and philosophy of science, art history, history of technology and architecture, media and communication studies — and they are especially interested in “experimental, visual, conceptual and historical contributions that elucidate and advance the issues and thematic concerns of the transdisciplinary topic how the life sciences represented and (still) represent dimensionality, scale and pattern, how some of these images disseminated into other fields, and how they were used to communicate science”.

The deadline for abstracts is February 15, 2008. Write to For further info, see here.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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