Biomedicine in museums

Art and the biomedical invisibles (Why do museums want to bring art and science together? — part 4)

As I wrote in the last post, our co-operation with the Danish Museum of Art and Design in 2004 was the founding rationale for our pilgrimage into art, design and science. Then things went rapidly. In 2006 we engaged Canadian-British artist-curator Martha Fleming to help us organise a workshop on ‘Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context’, followed by a public conference on ‘Art and Biomedicine: Beyond the Body’ hosted by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

We also began experimenting with different kinds of art exhibitions and installation, for example the street exhibition ‘The Face of Disease’, the photo collage exhibition ‘100 Light Years’, and the installation ‘Labyrinthitis’, a medical technology-inspired installation by Berlin-based sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard.

In this process, we were, in my ideal-typical reconstruction, entertaining another rationality for bringing art and science together, namely that art is a way of representing the new biomedical invisibles (see Martha’s article ‘The huge invisibles’). Medical museums have traditionally dealt with visible artefacts at a phenomenologically accessible macrolevel. The audience loves to see all these highly evocative objects: amputation saws, trepanations sets, pickled tumours, and so forth. But the armamentarium of contemporary biomedicine (HPLC columns, gene chips, etc.) are not particularly evocative, and the body they help researchers to represent is invisible (mainly protein interactions).

Hence another reason why art enters into the strategy of medical museums these days. Art is considered a way of bridging the everyday world and the invisible cellular and molecular domains.

This is what the annual Wellcome Image Awards are about: “the winning pictures”, they say, “show a wide variety of subjects, normally invisible to the naked eye, revealing new layers of complexity and making the ordinary extraordinary”. They probably mean making the extraordinary ordinary, though 🙂
[the next post will be about art as a great cross-disciplinary integrator]

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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