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Biomedicine in museums

Opening the biohacking lab at Medical Museion

By January 31, 2013No Comments

Here’s my short speech at the opening of Biohacking: Do it yourself! last Thursday evening:

In true hacker style, this opening is somewhat ad hoc-ish. We will spend about 20 minutes up here in the old auditorium; several people will say a few introductory words each, in several languages.

Then — because there isn’t room for us all down there — the speakers will go downstairs to the biohacker lab, where they will make the official opening (clip, clip with the scissor) while the web camera projects on the screen. And finally you will get drinks and popcorn from the microwave while you can move freely around between this floor and the biohacker lab.

So why are we doing this? What’s a biohacker lab doing in a medical museum and in this venerable old building from 1787? It’s not an irrelevant question, because some of our visitors think a museum like ours should restrict itself to real medical history – the history of epidemic diseases, surgical instruments from the 18th and 19th enturies, gory human body parts etc.

OK, believe it or not, we’re still in the history business. We’re still displaying things from the gruesome medical past. But we are also very eager to engage with the present and the future. As some of you know,  our latest exhibition is about the current obesity epidemic and the brand new treatment method called gastric bypass surgery that accidentally also cures type 2 diabetes.

In the exhibition (or rather installation) you’ll see tonight, we’re taking yet another step away from the past, to the future of biology and medicine — to the emerging worlds of synthetic biology and biohacking.

Other speakers will say more about synthetic biology and biohacking in a few moments. I’ll just give you the background to this project.

The idea behind the exhibition/installation started three years ago, when some ten small European science centers and art institutions met at Le Laboratorie in Paris to prepare an application from the European Community for an art-science project, called StudioLab.

One of the themes we decided on at the Paris meeting synthetic biology – a very hot topic among life scientists. Using small parts of life to build more complicated living parts. Like in the famous Lego bricks.

What was then, three years ago, a pretty vague idea, has now materialized in a very concrete art-design-science installation –thanks to an interdisciplinary collaboration between a couple of biohackers and scientists, an installation designer, a science communication specialist and a historian of ancient technology. They come from the UK, Germany, the United States, and Denmark, so this is a truly international project team, based locally here in Copenhagen.

Before I give the word over to these people who made this come true, I will say that it hasn’t escaped my notice that the idea of biohacking may have further implications for a museums like ours, and maybe for museums in general.

Because there’s something in the hacker culture – whether it’s computer hacking or biohacking – that points to the ongoing cultural change in the museum world. As I said to one of the biohackers at dinner earlier tonight: museums are struggling to become more open, to involve their users, to draw on the creativity of non-professionals, to crowdsource the cultural heritage, to engage citizens in the construction and re-construction of collections and exhibitions. The do-it-yourself attitude is spreading to museums too.

This is what some museum people call ‘museum 2.0‘. It’s pretty similar to what social media are doing to the world of publishing right now. Or what biohackers are trying to do for the life sciences.

As a museum I think we have very much to learn from the hacking culture – and I’m proud that we have been able to engage people from the local biohacker community here in Copenhagen to help us – not only to open this particular installation – but in the long run help us rethink what a museum might be.

Now, I will give the word to Rüdiger Trojok, a molecular biologist who’s currently finishing his Masters at the Technical University of Denmark; Malthe Borch, who has a masters in Biological engineering, and who’s a co-founder of the local biohacker space BiologiGaragen here in Copenhagen; and Sara Krugman, who’s an interaction designer, and currently completing her masters at The Copenhagen School of Interaction Design.

(Rüdiger, Malthe and Sara give short speeches)

Thank you, Rüdiger, Malthe and Sara! And now over to Emil Polny, who’s a project coordinator at the Center for Synthetic Biology here at the University of Copenhagen.

(Emil gives a short speech)

Thank you, Emil! And finally I’ll give the word to the people here at Medical Museion who have organised and curated the biohacking space, namely Karin Tybjerg, who’s an associate professor with a background in the history of science and technology and Louise Whiteley, who’s assistant professor with a background in theoretical neuroscience and science communication studies.

(Karin and Louise give short speeches)

Thank you Karin and Louise! And now comes the tricky logistical part of the opening. I will ask you all to wait here for two minutes – and we’ll show a short video while you wait — while our presenters walk down to the biohacking lab to open it. The reason is the lab room is so small, we cannot all be in there – so they will cut the ribbon in front of a video camera – and we’ll transmit it over the web and stream up on the screen behind me. And after they have cut the ribbon you can do whatever you want – take drink, eat some popcorn, sit and talk – or even go down and visit the biohacker space.

Thank you very much!  Enjoy your evening.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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