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Biomedicine in museums

Biomedical memory

By February 11, 2009No Comments

Biomedical memory is notoriously short. It resides mainly in daily anecdotes and small stories provided by the older members of the laboratory/clinic. You acquire snippets of the past in the coffee breaks or in the bar after working hours, through the introductory chapters of standard textbooks and anthologies, or by reading the memoirs of biomedical celebrities (like Craig Venter). You collect fragments that slowly coalesce in your mind as a more or less vague narrative about the past.

The chances are high that most biomedical scientists are creating rather similar versions of a fairly standardized historical narrative. The ‘truth’ about the historical past is a strong social construct (much more social than scientific constructs, in spite of what many science studies people suggest).

How can you intervene in such standard historical narratives? You can go to the library stacks to check out volumes of printed and bound journal issues (the kind of paper thing that isn’t available on-line yet). You can search for non-updated webpages from the last ten years that are still available as ghost sediment layers of the past. Also, the attics and basement rooms of laboratory buildings may contain material artefacts that still, somehow, remind laboratory workers of the ‘fact’ that there was once a biomedical past. And you can interview older colleagues — preferably the less succesful of them, those who don’t have a standard story to defend. Lab technicians often also know things that academics either don’t see or don’t want to talk about. 

If you are very eager to excavate alternative biomedical memories you can also try one of the archival and museum institutions around the world that collect and keep documents (images, laboratory notebooks) and material objects from the history of biomedicine. There aren’t many of them, and it will cost you a substantial amount of money to travel to get access to their holdings. But you will be rewarded.

Remember that not everything about the past is accessible. Much will remain silent for ever. There are most probably subjugated perspectives which are difficult to get hold of and marginalized positions which are never told in textbook introductions, but may pop up in casual conversations (rarely in systematic interviews when interviewees tends to be on guard). Sometimes the gaps and absences are more interesting than that which is superficially present in the interview, on the printed page or in the archive. If you find such an absence you may be on the right track. Keep digging. Good luck.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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