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Biomedicine in museums

Creating a distributed curatorial expertise for acquisitioning the contemporary medical heritage

In three earlier posts (here, here and here), I’ve argued in favour of a more proactive acquisition practice with respect to the contemporary medical scientific and technological heritage.

Against some curators who believe we need to restrict acquisitioning (for economic, space etc. reasons), I suggest that we should rather open up the sluice gates for collecting as much contemporary stuff as possible.

Immediately, this sounds like an impossibility. All science, medical and technology museums have limited staff and resources. How could we ever dream of acquiring, keeping and managing the tsunami of images, documents and used artefacts that would arrive from the contemporary world of medicine?

The solution, as I see it, is to begin re-thinking museum acquisition and curating practices in terms of distributed curatorial expertise.

Distributed expertise is a variety of crowdsourcing, a term coined by Jeff Howe in a Wired magazine article in 2006. Wikipedia defines it as a ‘‘distributed problem-solving and production model’’:

Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones. These best solutions are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem in the first place—the crowdsourcer—and the winning individuals in the crowd are sometimes rewarded. […] Crowdsourcing may produce solutions from amateurs or volunteers working in their spare time, or from experts or small businesses which were unknown to the initiating organization.

Crowdsourcing is only one of many social technologies for participatory knowledge production that have emerged in recent years. In analogy to the notion of ‘web 2.0’, museologists like Nina Simon have coined the notion of ‘museum 2.0’. Simon’s idea is not primarily to employ social web media as tools in museum outreach, but rather to rethink the physical museum in terms of the conceptual apparatus of ‘web 2.0’; that is, a participatory museum, in analogy to the participatory web.

The ambitious task of museum 2.0 is to reconceptualise all activities of the museum — research, acquisitions, curating, exhibition making and other kinds of outreach — in terms of user participation, user creativity and distributed knowledge.

To think about the acquisitioning of scientific, technological, and medical artefacts in terms of museum 2.0 implies that everyone who deals, in his/her daily work, with objects which could become potential museum artefacts is a potential curator.

The goal for the participatory museum would be to transform such potential curators into active participants in the acquisition and curating of collections (I call it ‘crowd acquisitioning’).

Social technologies like distributing, curating, and crowd acquisitioning do not by themselves solve the space problem associated with the collecting of the contemporary scientific, technological and medical heritage. However, one of the implications of the participatory museum is that its collections do not necessarily have to be physically located in a central museum building. If curating and curators can be distributed, so can collections.

The idea of a distributed museum collection is not a central museum with peripheral repositories to which only professional curators have keys and access. It should rather be understood as a network of local collections. each managed by its local adjunct curator.

Most departments in most universities have their own small collections, sometimes just a small cupboard with a few objects kept for commemorative and nostalgic reasons. The governing role of the central museum vis-á-vis the distributed museum collection would then primarily be to offer advice in the form of guidelines for ‘best museum practice’ in acquisitions and curating.

To think in terms of a network of distributed museum collections not only promises to solve some of the problems with lack of storage space. It may also become a powerful instrument for raising the historical awareness and responsibility of practitioners-curators. Instead of employing more professional staff to collect, curate, and register artefacts in the central museum repository, scarce resources would be better used by training practitioner-curators to become gatekeepers that build relations between the museum and the rest of the university.

In this scenario — what would the role of the curator be? Instead of doing all the curatorial work themselves, professional museum curators would rather develop guidelines for how the network of distributed curators shall curate and preserve; the professionals would also distribute protocols for registration in a wiki-based central database; and, most importantly, they would spend much time and energy raising discussions among the practitioners of why the scientific, technological, and medical heritage is worth keeping and its role in the creation of cultural identity. In short, the main role of professional museum curators would be to build a distributed curatorial experience.

Much of this is hardly new. Many local and regional museums have worked along these lines long before the concept ‘museum 2.0’ was coined. Many science, technology, and medical museums once started as participatory collecting projects initiated by enthusiastic practitioners, who created small local collections, some of which still remain in the custody of departments and scientific societies.

Medical Museion is a case in point. Today the museum has one of Europe’s largest, richest, and most varied collections of medical artefacts of all kinds — but actually it once started as a private initiative by Copenhagen doctors on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Danish Medical Association (DADL) in 1907. Initially conceived as a collection of contemporary medical devices for a temporary show to commemorate the progress of medicine since the founding of DADL in 1857, the collection was made permanent and the museum continued to grow, largely thanks to the enthusiasm of the contributors, and it continued to do so for at least two or three generations.

Today, such participatory acquisition practices have largely been abolished. The progressive professionalisation in science, technical, and medical museums throughout the twentieth century has made such practices look amateurish and antiquated.

However, I believe it is time to rethink the advantage of bringing practitioners of science, technology, and medicine into more active roles in the work of acquisitioning and curating. Citizen-science projects such as and Galaxy Zoo are excellent examples of how this can be done in principle — although the specific features of museum knowledge production, that is, its material artefact, is an extra challenge to overcome (affter all museums cannot be run in the virtual space only).

Read the final and last post in this series of five here.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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