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Biomedicine in museums

How do containers embody scientific knowledge?

By November 13, 2011No Comments

Many of us here at Medical Museion are fascinated by containers, boxes, flasks etc. in biomedicine — all those kinds of packages that are used for keeping and transporting body parts, cell cultures, chemicals, biobank samples (like the 23andMe box), etc.

Such containers are part of the vital infrastructure of both scientific and clinical practice, but they are largely invisible to scholars in science and technology studies, historians and philosophers of science etc.

We have written about biomedical containers in different context. For example, it was a fascination with organ transportation boxes that partly laid behind our former senior curator Søren Bak-Jensen‘s research on the institutional exchange of kidneys (see “To share or not to share: institutional exchange of cadaver kidneys in Denmark”, Medical History 52: 23-46, 2008; read it here).

Likewise, we’ve written quote a few blog posts to highlight the ‘forgotten container’, for example:

      • lab chemical bottles as collection objects (see here)
      • the restriction cage (see here)
      • how containers interfere with the research process (see here)

And, of course, containers loomed large in the “container wall” designed by Martha Flaming, which helped Medical Museion win the Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits for the Split and Splice Exhibition (see here).

One of the curators of the Split and Splice-exhibition, Susanne Bauer (now at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin) is now helping to take this interest in containers a major step forwards by organising a meeting titled ‘Knowledge in a Box: How Mundane Things Shape Knowledge Production’ together with Maria Rentetzi at the National Technical University of Athens and Martina Schlünder at the Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen.

The three organisers invite proposals from scholars in the history of science, technology, and medicine, science and technology studies, the humanities, visual and performing arts, museum and cultural studies and other related disciplines for a workshop on “the uses and meanings of mundane things such as boxes, packages, bottles, and vials in shaping knowledge production”:

Boxes have always supported the significance of the objects they contained, allowing specific activities to arise. In the hands of natural historians and collectors, boxes functioned as a means of organizing their knowledge throughout the eighteenth century. They formed the material bases of the cabinet or established collection and accompanied the collector from the initial gathering of natural specimens to their final display. As “knowledge chests” or “magazining tools” the history of box-like containers also go back to book printing and the typographical culture. The artists’ boxes of the early nineteenth century were used to store the paraphernalia of a new fashionable trend. In the late nineteenth century the box became the pharmacist’s laboratory and a device for standardizing and controlling dosage of oral remedies. In the twentieth century radiotherapy the box was elevated to a multifunctional tool working as a memory aid to forgetful patients or as “knowledge package” that predetermined dosages, included equipment, and ready-made radium applicators.

Focusing on medicine, boxes have played a crucial role since the eighteenth century when doctors ought to bring instruments to their patient’s house for surgical or obstetrical interventions. In modern operating rooms boxes organize the workflow and build an essential part of the aseptical regime. Late twentieth century biomedical scientists store tissue samples in large-scale biobanks, where samples contained in straws are placed in vials, then the vials in boxes which in turn are stacked up in “elevators”. This storage system facilitates retrieval with barcodes, indexing each individual sample so that additional variables can be retrieved from a database. Thus the container and its content are tied up in a close epistemic and material relationship.

As it is usually the case the box embodies the knowledge that goes into the chemical laboratory and its function; it classifies objects into collections of natural history; it meaningfully orders letters in a printer’s composition or painting equipment for the artist’ convenience; it standardizes pharmaceutical dosage forms and allows pharmacists to control the production and consumption of their remedies; in the commercial world it misleads or informs customers; it persuades consumers for the integrity of the product that they enclose; it hides the identity of the object(s) that contains, it shapes professional identities and is essential for mobilizing, transporting, accumulating and circulating materials and the knowledge they produce and embody.

Furthermore, if we do understand matter and materiality not as given, solid, continuous, and stable but rather as something being done, performed, shaped and embedded in practices, then we should examine closer how bottles and boxes themselves materialize differently in a set of diverse practices. How do they change their ontologies by migrating from the kitchen to the laboratory, from the workshop to the operating room?

It’s a brilliant theme for a scholarly meeting, and the venue — the tobacco museum in Kavala, Greece — isn’t less alluring. The meeting will take place 26-29 July, 2012; deadline for 300 word proposals is 15 January; and full papers (from those accepted) are due by 30 May). For further details, contact Susanne Bauer (, Maria Rentetzi ( or Martina Schlünder (

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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