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Biomedicine in museums

In Medias Res: The aesthetics of scientific, technological and medical things

Some of us from Medical Museion are going to try a new session format at this year’s Swedish STS-meeting, which takes place at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, 2-4 May.

Titled “In Medias Res: The aesthetics of scientific, technological and medical things”, the idea of the session is to present some of our combined research and curatorial projects, both by talking about them (theoretical points of departure, etc) and at the same time by demonstrating actual physical objects dealt with in the projects. We’re going to talk about everyday aesthetics, about the sense of touch, and about smelly things

Here’s the general description of the session:

The aim of the science communication programme at Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen is to conduct research into public engagement with biomedical science, and to develop and pilot new research-based methods for public communication. This combined research and curatorial programme is based on the assumptions that medical science and technology is an integrated part of our culture, that public engagement with science is best promoted by dialogue and open access to the creative process (‘science in the making’), and that the material aesthetics of science, technology and medicine is an important and neglected dimension of science communication. In this session we will present three projects that explore the aesthetic/sensory (visual, tactile, audible, and olfactory) dimensions of scientific, technological and medical things and their settings. Each presentation outlines a specific theoretical approach to the aesthetics of things in medias res (in the midst of things) to help stimulate the critical sensory awareness of the workshop participants.

And here are the three presentations (we may add a fourth presentation in the next week or two):

Sci-art has become a recognised subgenre of the contemporary fine art scene – from beautiful images on scientific journal covers to tissue-engineered wet-art installations. Sci-art has entered art schools, has caught the interest of gallery owners and art reviewers, and has also drawn the attention of major funding agencies, like the Wellcome Trust, as a means for strengthening public engagement with science. However, the popularity of sci-art risks eclipsing another, and perhaps even more important, realm of aesthetic practice in science, viz., everyday aesthetics. My aim is to reclaim everyday (mundane) aesthetics and the sensory qualities of research as a central aspect of science and science communication. In this presentation I will show some visual and material examples of the everyday aesthetic qualities of things from a biomedical laboratory.

Held to be the primary sense by Aristotle but nonetheless surrounded by many cultural taboos, as explicated by Freud, the sense of touch occupies a complex and contradictory role in society. This ingrained tension between the necessity of touch and the prohibition against touching has recently sparked off a renewed interest in the history and culture of tactile expression. While historians and scholars of comparative literature have looked at the different ways in which touch has been represented, anthropologists and museum curators have engaged with the concrete relation between touch and material objects of various kinds. In this presentation we will explore the realm of touch through a hands-on demonstration of a couple of medical-scientific object.

In this presentation I will discuss ruminations on the ambience marked by sensuous medical things. First and foremost, the ambience I seek to grasp is often occasioned by our multisensuous being; secondly, they touch upon us in an existential way; and last and not least, they smell! As smells are often passed over as a not so serious area of research, my ambition is, as a methodological counter-strategy, to take smell-experiences as the starting point for the discussion. By the help of a smell-sensitive approach I will move towards discussions of multisensuous impressions of concrete medical things taken from the medical museum collection. My presentation will be exemplified with a nose-on demonstration of medical-scientific museum objects.

You can find the invitation to the Swedish STS meeting here. Our session is placed on Thursday 3 May, between 2 and 5 pm (see programme here).

(photo credit: Andrew Whitacre‘s Flickr photo stream; Creative commons).

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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