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Biomedicine in museums

Exploring and curating medical objects with the sense of touch

By September 20, 2007No Comments

Jan Eric Olsén and I have just given a presentation in the Artefacts XII meeting held at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo, Monday 17 and Tuesday 18 September. Here’s the introduction to our presentation (links added):

This is not a conference paper in the traditional sense — but rather a practical illustration of less conventional approaches to object exploration.

But before we turn to the illustration exercise — for which we will then need a couple of volonteers — we will shortly explain the background for this presentation.

Those of you who attended the Artefacts XI meeting in Stockholm in September last year do perhaps remember the paper that one of us (ThS) gave on presence- vs meaning cultures.

The message in that paper was, first, that science, technology and medicine museums have almost entirely understood their aim as institutions that produce historical meaning by means of contextual and narrative interpretation of material objects and pictures, and, second, that this kind of meaning-production has largely subdued what one might call ‘presence-production’. (By ‘presence’ we mean, inspired by Sepp Gumbrecht, the impression that objects and pictures give — almost physically on your body as it were through the senses — relatively unmediated by interpretation.)

In other words the emphasis on presence in a museum context implies a return of aesthetics as sensuous experience, and as something more than a mere interpretative practice.

In our research group at Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen, we have been discussing the notions of presence, presence-culture and presence-production quite a lot throughout the last year. For example, in April 2007 we organised a symposium on “Presence vs. Meaning” in a museum context [see report here] and two weeks ago we organised an international workshop and conference on biomedicine, art and aesthetics [see report here].

We have had some discussions about how one could proceed with the notion of presence. To make a long story short, one way we are discussing right now is to focus some of our historical and curatorial attention to those senses that are used to get in contact with the world in the least mediated way. We are thinking here, of course, of the sense of touch — which involves several kinds of receptors and therefore, strictly speaking, is a class of senses, rather than a single sense (for the sake of simplifying the argument we also exclude the thermosense).

It goes with out saying that the sense of touch plays an extraordinary important role in people’s everyday lives. The world would be a quite different — and extremely dangerous — place to live in, if one were, somehow, to loose it. It is probably more important for human survival than vision, hearing, smell and taste.

But, it also goes without saying that touch is also the sense that is the most neglected in modern culture. Vision is a highly praised sense (just look at the visual arts), so is hearing (listen to music), and so is smell and taste (cooking has indeed been elevated to a fine art in many cultures for millenia).

Touch, however, has been relegated to a subservient role (unless you believe that erotic art is more than just the use of the vision, hearing, taste and smell). And therefore it is probably no coincidence that touch looms small in museums too.

Sure, there are museums that deal with touch. For example, the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, and museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offer tours for blind and visually impaired visitors. But such museums and exhibitions are either for children or for blind people — and as an aid to the visual. As the Metropolitican puts it, they want to let blind people “experience visual art such as paintings and sculpture” (quote from here)

In other words, touch is not understood as an aesthetic sense in its own right. The way the Metropolitan Museum puts it — touch is another way to experience visual art — has everything to do with what has been called ‘the hegemony of the visual’. I.e., it is vision that dominates exploratory practices. We look and describe.

So what interests us, is the extent to which other senses, like hearing, smell, taste — and especially touch — can be used to explore objects. Not just as a children’s museum ploy, or a museum for the blind — or a museum where for a short moment you experience how it is to be blind, like in the German exhibition “Dialog im Dunkeln” — but as a standard, routine and legitimate part of the curators’ and visitors’ experience of the material world.

After this intro Jan Eric presented his understanding of the notion of tactility within the framework of the ‘hegemony of the visual’ (Jan Eric did not have a manuscript, however). Finally, in order to illustrate the importance of touch we asked two participants in the meeting to join us in an exercise to explore how subjective tactile object can be experienced. We’ll be back with a report from that exercise.


Note: After our presentation in Oslo we have learned about a seminar series called ‘Touch and the value of object handling’ initiated under the AHRC Research Networks Scheme by University College London Museums & Collections during the last academic year:

UCL Museums & Collections organised a series of workshops investigating touch and value of object handling in museums. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the workshops brought together a diverse range of experts from academic and museum environments, with a view to establishing a network where information relating to the value of object handling can be shared and developed. Participants in the project came from a variety of backgrounds and brought with them a diverse range of expertise, research interests and museum access requirements. Scientists shared their knowledge of the underlying psychological and neurological mechanisms behind touch and sensation. Museum staff discussed the types of practical applications of touch employed in museum such as interactive displays, handling boxes and new technologies for interpreting objects. The union of these two groups afforded a unique opportunity to understand the true value of object handling and provide the museum world with a valuable toolkit for improving access and interpretation.

(quoted from here; see also the abstracts from their 2006-07 seminar series here).

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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