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Biomedicine in museums

A multi-sensory turn in the historiography of medicine?

By February 13, 2008No Comments

Even if both Adam (here) and I (here) have been critical of all these ‘turns’ that appear over and over again — and more or less mindlessly — in the humanities, I for one am nevertheless inclined to accept some ‘turns’ more than others. I’m particularly intrigued by the notion of a sensory turn (see also here).

The senses and sensory experience have recently been embraced also by historians. For example, the conference ‘The Five Senses in the Enlightenment’ at the University of Birmingham, 17-18 May 2008, will discuss multi-sensory (smell, taste, vision, hearing, touch) historical phenomena — not, unexpectedly, with a focus on how the senses have been mobilised in the history of medicine. As the organisers write:

The Enlightenment offers a particularly fertile context for a study of the senses. It was eighteenth-century publics which first embraced Locke’s belief that the testimony of the five senses forms the basis of our knowledge of the world. The senses were understood to be the conduits of true knowledge on which rational thought and sophisticated judgment depended. It was also in the eighteenth century that the ‘cult of sensibility’ arose. Throughout the century, European philosophers and novelists, for example, openly embraced these ideas, debated them and strove to perfect modes of sensory perception. This conference departs from existing studies which prioritise one sense by encouraging a multi-sensory approach that draws together expertise from the Faculties of Medicine, Science, Arts and Education.

Speakers include:

  • Mark Smith, University of South Carolina: ‘The Five Senses in Enlightenment Culture’
  • Shearer West, University of Birmingham: ‘Aurality and Tactility in English Portraiture’
  • Anthony Synnott, University of Concordia, Quebec: ‘The Senses: Sensibilities, Sensitivities and Sensualities.’
  • Steve Connor, Birkbeck College, London: ‘Ventriloquism’
  • Penelope Gouk, University of Manchester: ‘The sense of hearing and musical perception: perspectives from the British Enlightenment’
  • Michael Brown, University of Kent: ‘Fetid air and British Enlightenment Epidemiology’
  • Jonathan Reinarz, University of Birmingham: ‘Learning to use their senses: visitors to voluntary hospitals in eighteenth-century England’
  • Richard Wrigley, University of Nottingham: ‘Smelling Rome’
  • Richard Clay, University of Birmingham: ‘Smells and Bells: Revolutionary Protest in Paris’
  • Cathy McClive, University of Durham: ‘Touch in Medical Practice in Eighteenth-Century France’

More info here:

I dare not even think of what a conference on multi-sensory medical museum experiences might bring up 🙂

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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