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Biomedicine in museums

The aesthetics and politics of specimens on display

The title of this conference, organised by Petra Lange-Berndt and Mechthild Fend in the AHRC Research Network “The Culture of Preservation” (Activating Stilled Lives: The Aesthetics and Politics of Specimens on Display) is alluring.

The meeting will address “the challenges institutions face when dealing with formerly living entities and consider the aesthetics and politics of their display”. The idea is “to discuss the use of specimens in temporary exhibitions, museums or university collections and the role curators, art and artists have been playing in the transformation of these spaces”.

It will also consider “how preserved specimens have changed through the altering contexts in which they have been displayed”, e.g., “the initial transformation of organisms into objects, the more recent re-definition of pathological specimens as human remains, or the dramatic rearrangements that took place when natural history, anthropology or anatomy collections (many dating from the nineteenth century) were updated – coinciding with a shift in audiences, from specialists to a broader public”.

In addition the conference will consider the topic of preservation will be taken up.

  • How and why do various cultures preserve elements of what is considered as nature?
  • How does this relate to environmental notions of conservation and extinction?
  • Should flawed specimens be disposed of?
  • Can museums as a whole be considered cultural preserves?
  • Should we preserve the preserves?
  • And last but not least: Do we really need to embalm everything?

Speaker include:

  • Mechthild Fend & Petra Lange-Berndt: Exhibiting Preserves
  • Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Historian of Science, Berlin): Preparations Revisited
  • Rose Marie San Juan (Art Historian, London): Bones in Transit: the Re-Animation of Human Bone in Early Modern Cabinets of Display
  • John MacKenzie (Professor Emeritus of Imperial History, Lancaster): The Natural World and Imperial Legitimation: Hunting, Trophies, Taxidermy and Museums
  • Robert Marbury (Artist, Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermy, Baltimore): Personal Computers as the New Wunderkammer and the Rise of Rogue Taxidermy
  • Petra Lange-Berndt (Art Historian, London): Subsculpture: Assembling a Museum of Attractions
  • Steve Baker (Artist and Art Historian, Norfolk): “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead”
  • Angela Matyssek (Art Historian, Marburg / Maastricht): “Museumlifes”: Mould, Decay and the History of the Object
  • Panel discussion on “Curating Specimens” with Claude d’Anthenaise (Director, Musée de la chasse et de la nature, Paris), Christine Borland (Artist, Glasgow), Lisa O’Sullivan (Director, Center for the History of Medicine, New York Academy of Medicine), Johannes Vogel (Director, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin)
  • Anke te Heesen (Historian of Science, Berlin): Displaying the Infinite Amount
  • Nélia Dias (Anthropologist, Lisbon): The Fate of Human Remains from the Musée de l’homme to the Musée du quai Branly

The meeting takes place at the Department of History of Art, University College of London, 17-18 May 2012. The event is open and free for all, but please register with Pandora Syperek,

More here.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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