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Biomedicine in museums

Carnevalesque medicine: Representing and displaying curious, anecdotal, unique, peculiar and monstrous biomedical objects

Society for Social Studies of Science, Annual Meeting: The Representation of Controversial Objects: New Methods of Displaying the Unruly and the Anomalous in Science and Technology Studies
Pasadena, Ca., 20–22 October, 2005
. (se tidligere indlæg her på bloggen). Her er konferenceprogrammet.

Medicinsk Museion deltager med en session: “Carnevalesque medicine: Representing and displaying curious, anecdotal, unique, peculiar and monstrous biomedical objects” med i alt tre papers:

Session abstract:

Neither a traditional museum, nor a pure research and teaching department – but an amalgamation of both – the Medical Museion (, formerly the Medical-History Museum at the University of Copenhagen) focuses on the recent history and current state of biomedical science and technology, with a strong eye to the representation and display of the curious, anecdotal, unique, peculiar and monstrous. This session explores three ways of approaching the carnevalesque aspects of medicine. Taking ‘new historicism’ as his point of departure, Adam Bencard employs the concept of ‘the anecdotal’ as a resource for the study of the materiality of recent science, technology and biomedicine. Camilla Mordhorst draws on her former studies of Renaissance curiosity cabinets to suggest new modes of displaying quirky singularities in a recent biomedical exhibition settings. Thomas Söderqvist takes Kierkegaard’s existential dictum about the scientist – that the personal life is more important than the professional life – as his point of departure for reframing science and technology studies in terms of the ‘multitude’ of ungovernable, recalcitrant, eccentric and irregular ‘singularities’/researchers. The papers will be read by alternating ‘professors’ while apposite material objects will be circulated in session under the supervision of the ‘assistants’.

(Session organizer: Thomas Söderqvist)


Adam Bencard (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen):
“Cryptic particularities – possible uses of objects and anecdotes in the study of science and technology”

To most historians, anecdotes – like objects – often serve as rhetorical embellishments and illustrations only, a brief moment of relief from analytical generalizations. But as this conference encourages us to take seriously the importance of the anomalous and unruly object, the question arises how such anecdotes and objects might be employed in studies of science, technology and society? I suggest a methodological interpretation of the relationship between objects and historical narratives, based on the new historicist understanding of the anecdote. My argument is that the unruly object, like the anecdote, might be employed as a tool with which to go against the cohesiveness and relatively smooth surface of the historical narrative, and reveal in it the watermark of the random, the contingent, the exotic, the suppressed, and anomalous. They carry with them a cryptic particularity that might make the researcher “pause, or even stumble at the threshold of history” (Gallagher & Greenblatt 2000). Unruly objects, like anecdotes, thus may serve as reminders that analytical categories cannot enclose the lived everyday reality whether it unfolds in a laboratory, a hospital or a living room. The object, as a methodological device, challenges the boundaries of the historical study. It offers a touch of the everyday, the sphere of practice that even in its most awkward and inept articulations makes claims on truths that is denied to the most eloquent of historical texts.

Camilla Mordhorst (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)
“Revisiting curiosity – utilizing weird and singular objects in exhibitions of recent biomedical science and technology”

The Renaissance curiosity cabinet (“Wunderkammer”) has been interpreted (e.g., by Foucault) as a lost and mysterious universe beyond modern rationality. But collection strategies and practices were in fact far more systematic than the surviving weird objects and the apparently strange order of their display immediately suggests. My study of the early 17th century Museum Wormianum shows that Ole Worm, when collecting, ordering and describing his objects, was involved in a systematic survey of the non-categorizable. Worm’s investigations of curious objects was a method for exploring a new and unknown world unfolding before the eyes of Renaissance men and women. Instead of normalizing and bagatellizing the new and weird phenomena – or even trying to make an attempt to situate them within a synoptic overview of the world – they were displayed, studied and discussed in their full abnormality and otherness. It was curiosity that motivated the investigators-visitors and laid the path for exploring the unknown territory. The emergence of new kinds of biomedical objects – such as hybrids between humans and non-humans, hybrids between information systems and biobanks, hybrids between the normal and pathological, etc – raises the possibility for a renaissance of similar ways of handling the “unübersichtlichkeit” of postgenomic medicine, e.g., by inviting 21st century exhibition visitors-investigators to an open-ended investigation of the weird singularity of the new curiosities.

Thomas Söderqvist (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)
“Refusing categorisation and contextualisation – biomedical researchers as singularities”

What kinds of unruly (unmanagable, undisciplined, defiant etc) objects can be found in the biomedical laboratory, clinic or office? Although STS studies have demonstrated how physical and theoretical objects are in a permanent state of uncertainty, contingency and unsettledness, actors in the lab, clinic and office expect biomedical platforms to be governable, experimental systems to be predictable, and theoretical and physical objects eventually to be stabilised; the only objects that are systematically expected to be fundamentally undisciplined, singular, unpredictable and eccentric are individual researchers themselves. Thus (and despite many sociological dreams to the contrary) researchers expect and constantly reconstruct themselves and their peers – e.g., in biographical and autobiographical narratives and in lab gossip – as performative rather than habitual, deviant rather than ruly, quirky rather than smooth. In their self-understanding they eschew the ruly categories of metascientific narration, and refuse to be categorised and contextualised. This paper argues that such narratives shall be taken seriously and that many researchers thus are among the most obvious candidates for achieving status as MAO (Most Anomalous Object). As singularities in a multitude, the open, distributed network of researchers (like bloggers, hackers, etc.) engage in a collective project of creative immaterial production and thereby potentially contribute to the biopolitical production of the common (vide Hardt and Negri, 2004), rather than in the exercise of biopower. The paper will also explore to what extent the vocabularies of Bakhtin and Kierkegaard are suited for the representation and display of unruly researchers.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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