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Biomedicine in museums

Deep lacerations, inflicted in the blink of an eye

One of the favourite topics in our museum discussions is ‘presence effects’, i.e., how close encounters with museum objects can convey other (and often deeper) kinds of experiences than those you get from reading a book or hearing a talk (see, e.g., Ken Arnold’s and my article in a recent issue of the journal Isis).

Alistair Kwan, Assistant Director of the Study Group Program at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, University of Rochester, relates a nice example of the difference between reading about a medical treatment in a book and having it demonstrated by means of a museum specimen:

I once did a little experiment: I asked a class to describe to me the phlebotomy apparatus that they’d read about in a history of medicine. They described it at length, with considerable detail. They told me how it worked.

Then I opened a box and showed them a common multiple-blade scarificator and some horn suction cups and brass syringe. “Is this what you were thinking of?” Every one of them said no. All were completely puzzled about how the author had so thoroughly misled them, supposedly in the name of scholarly truth.

I cocked the spring, and released the blades. They heard the snap. Only a few of them caught a glimpse of the blades spinning past; the rest didn’t even see it. Several retreated, pulling in their hands and holding their arms. All seemed to be imagining what it must feel like to have those blades flash through your skin.

None of that had come through in the book at all.

They had thought of something more like gentle surface scratches, or receiving a single, carefully controlled cut.

Not this grid of relatively deep lacerations, inflicted in the blink of an eye.

(from the rete mailing list)

That’s a nice example — would be great to hear more!

(thumbnail courtesy:

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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