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Biomedicine in museums

Displaying stuff at the nanolevel in museums

Here are excerpts from an email-discussion that Adam, Louise and I had recently on displaying material things at the nanolevel. The discussion was prompted by a search I made on the net to find interesting potential invitees for our MUSE seminar series in the autumn and I’ve put the discussion online (for reasons explained in the following post) to hopefully inspire people interesting in displaying micro- and nanosized objects in museums to help us develop these ideas further:
No, but thanks for passing on – sounds very interesting*. Her thesis is available here– I’ve only got to Chapter 3 but in the meantime think this comment from the abstract is very pertinent for synthetic biology (as well as for future uses of brain imaging); “This thesis proposes that one of the problems with engaging publics with nanotechnology is a lack of attention to the way nanoscale material processes are imagined or understood by publics”

She also addresses one of the key questions that I think comes up for StudioLab: “whether these artistic experiments and the policy-based ‘experiments in dialogue’ (Stilgoe, 2007) could be brought together. Could playful, sensory engagement with the materiality of nanotechnology blur the spaces between scientific and public engagements with matter and create the conditions for more meaningful deliberations on ‘invisible risks’?”.

Karin and I will discuss next week whether we should pick her brains/attempt to involve her in StudioLab, if not should we perhaps invite her to give a talk in the Autumn in any case?

On a practical note, does anyone have access to Leonardo? She has a paper in there, which I think is a summary of her thesis, but KU doesn’t have a subscription …


* and, importantly, swims in Tooting Bec Lido near where I grew up. I know this from reading her thesis acknowledgements, always fun!


Louise et al.

I think it would be great to have Angela Last (or someone else) come and address these things, which go to the heart of the problem of experiencing the material nature of scientific objects.

Matter matters so differently at the nanolevel. the thermodynamic properties of fluids change dramatically, as does viscosity etc. It’s a kind of entirely new physical world one would enter if one was an observer at the nanoscale. For example, does it make sense to think in terms if ‘sound’ at the nanolevel, when soundwaves are a thousand times larger than the objects. Does it make sense to speak about ‘light’ when the wavelengths of (for us) visible light is 100 times the size of a small protein. How does one make sense of this in science communication?



We should definetely invite her, her work looks very interesting – would also be interesting to discuss her work in the context of the Human Remains-exhibition, she might have some good input.




Nanosize remains??


I was thinking more of the general question of the difficulty of relating to matter once the scales shift dramatically downwards, but nanosized remains sounds tempting.


This is an interesting question — remains that can still, in some reasonable way, be called ‘human’, are such, precisely because they exist on a scale (meter, centimeter, maybe millimeter, maybe micrometer) which retains some properties we might call ‘human’, as opposed to ‘just molecules’ or ‘just atoms’. Nanoscale is ‘just molecules’, ‘just atoms’.


Yeah, there is something really interesting in when (and if) the category of the human loses meaning. It seems to me that the more science delves into the world of ‘just atoms’ and ‘just molecules’ and intervenes on that level, the more we are forced to reconfigure our sense of the human as also being ‘just molecules’ and ‘just atoms’ – and this affects a fundamental change, since what happens at the nanoscale seems at odds with the conceptions of time and space that are hardwired into how we appropriate the world. Related to this point, there is a really interesting philosophical trend called ‘weird realism’, which calls upon the writing of H.P. Lovecraft in order to renew a sense of the weird in philosophy. As Graham Harman writes in an essay in the journal Collapse:

“Against the model of philosophy as a rubber stamp for common sense and archival sobriety, I would propose that philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird.”

(Collapse can be read here:


Sounds like general enthusiasm for inviting her, and thanks for the link Adam […]!

So many interesting strands coming up here, I agree that her discussion of presenting invisible scales as physical installation would be relevant both to Human Remains and to Studiolab. I think the idea of pushing past DNA to a weird-er, nanoscale realm is also fascinating, and an interesting slant as Adam suggests on the theme of how interventionist, molecular biomedicine might affect our understanding of the body. In terms of fitting it into the exhibition schema, are there any research practices that collect/use human remains explicitly on this scale, or senses in which we could view lab procedures for handling larger samples in this way?

Even if not, I think this discussion throws up a couple of nice niggly questions for the theme of decreasing scale of human remains corresponding to decreasing identity until we come ‘full circle’ back to DNA and the uniquely identifiable subject. It made me think of the adage ‘we all contain molecules of Shakespeare’, and those popular statistics about the frequency with which the materials that compose our bodies turn over and are replaced (replacing all the planks in a ship, anyone?). I think this draws attention to the fact that the perception of identity in the human samples depends to some degree (a) on whether the living process of turnover in the research materials is halted – compare a pickled organ to a transplanted one; a sample on a slide to a cell line in a biobank (time also gets rather weird here of course…), and (b) on the perspective of the ‘viewer’ on the sample; DNA is of course present at all scales, but it’s perhaps when that becomes the focus of the research and its communication that it seems again to represent individuals; one’s attitude to the status of the personality or spirit affects how much a transplanted organ is identified with the donor. I think this question of material identity might be a good one to pique interest and debate in a side room/event.

I’m also very interested in her theoretical and practical attempt to combine sci-arts practice with explicit attempts at ‘public engagement’; the tension in goals that I think exists at the heart of StudioLab …



Wonderful discussion!
So, who invites Angela Last?
And when do we want to see her? Maybe when Ken Arnold is here (approx. 15 August – 15 September)?

Any further comments — here or on Twitter?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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