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Biomedicine in museums

Museums as graveyards for dead objects (rather than echo rooms for talking objects?)

By November 26, 2009No Comments

Last year we had a discussion on this blog (see here and here) about whether objects ‘talk’ — no, they don’t! But do they ‘die’?

The UCL-based Autopsies group (associated with Film Studies) suggests they do. The group runs a cultural studies project called “Autopsies: The Afterlife of Dead Objects” to explore this morbid issue. Here’s how they reason about the ‘death’ of objects:

Just as the twentieth century was transformed by the advent of new forms of media—the typewriter, gramophone, and film, for example—the arrival of the twenty-first century has brought the phasing out of many public and private objects that only recently seemed essential to ‘modern life.’ What is the modern, then, without film projectors, typewriters, and turntables? How has the modern changed as trolley cars disappeared and hot air balloons were converted into high-risk sport rather than the demonstration of national pride in science and a crucial tactical mechanism of wartime? But what will our twenty-first century entail without mixmasters, VCRs, or petrol-driven automobiles? Does the ‘modern’ in fact program the death of objects? What is the significance of death for things that live only through such a paradoxical program of planned obsolescence? How can cultural historians and theorists participate in the reflection on the ends of objects, from their physical finitude to the very projects for their disposal, the latter increasingly of concern with the multiplication of things that do not gently decompose into their own night.

In other words, what the Autopsies project actually tries to do is to reflect on the life course and ultimate fate of the material things we associate with ‘modernity’ — and dressing this up in the metaphor of ‘death’.

The ‘death’-metaphor might be useful. For example, I guess you could say, in some cognitively productive sense, that science, technology and medicine are huge modern technoscientific systems for the production of dead things. Because the perpetual quest for creativity, innovation and progress, by definition as it were, continuously kills off ideas, concepts, theories, methodologies, instruments and practices of the near past, turning them into a dead objects — dead scientific objects, dead technologies, dead medical instruments, dead diagnostic procedures and dead therapeutical regimes. The killing of living objects and parallel production of dead objects is an inherent necessary side-effect of the innovation machinery. 

I don’t think the ‘death’ metaphor radically changes the way I look at objects. But it nevertheless introduces a slightly different angle to the way I understand science, technology and medical museums — from being repositories of cultural heritage, they can be seen as graveyards for dead scientific, technological and medical objects.

And for some reason I like the idea of conceptualising medical museum objects as ‘dead objects’ better than the notions of ‘talking objects’ and ‘evocative objects’ (that said, ‘madeleines’ is my favourite metaphor).

(thanks to Haidy Geismar for the tip about the Autopsies project)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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