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Biomedicine in museums

Curating medical artifacts with an eye to the future

By November 16, 2008No Comments

The acquisition of medical museum artifacts is usually seen as a job for specialists (curators) with historical training. To curate a collected artifact for later use in exhibitions, you are supposed to know where it came from, how it was produced and used, what meanings were attributed to it, what role it played in medical practice, how it related to other things, and so forth.

In other words, curating museum artifacts is, as a rule, always already a historical practice. The future doesn’t seem to be of any immediate interest for the curator.

Yet the future creeps into the equation, whether the curator wants it or not. When curators handle artifacts from the past, the future of these past times is an integral part of the curatorial practice. The description of, say, the practice of auscultation using the stethoscope in the 1850s will not only depend on one’s knowledge of 18th and early 19th century pathological anatomy, but also on one’s knowledge of later auscultation diagnostics methods. (Pure historicism — evaluating things from the interpretative horizon of the historical actors at the time the thing was produced and used only — is a nice scholarly ideal, but not meaningful in practice.)

In other words, the already-known future is an unavoidable (and mostly valuable) resource for interpreting historical medical artifacts.

But what about the not-yet-known future? Do our more or less shaky predictions about the so far unknown future play any role in the curation of contemporary medical artifacts? For example, will forecasts about the future development of personalized medicine influence the curation of a 23andMe retail DNA test kit? (I’m using it as an example, because Adam will buy a kit and donate it to our collections afterwards — it’s one of his contributions to our joint anthology.)

To what extent does predictions about the future development of biomedicine and medical technologies constitute a cognitive resource for the curation of contemporary medicine? Are the forecasts of possible scientific, technological, social and cultural futures a sine qua non for turning the current medical world into medical heritage?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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