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Biomedicine in museums

The ephemeral culture of biomedicine

By December 7, 2007No Comments

I think it would be worthwhile to think a little more about ephemera in a contemporary biomedical context (cf. yesterday’s post + Jessica’s and Mike’s comments to it).

The term ‘ephemera’ (n. pl. of ephêmeros = short-lived) is often used by collectors for documents that were produced for the moment and not for long shelf-life: posters, recipes, advertisements, pamphlets, postcards, stamps, labels, etc. Ephemera have always been favourite objects of collectors; e.g., in a medical history context the William H. Helfand collection of proprietary health pamphlets and his collection of pharmaceutical trade cards are famous, and have been shown in several temporary displays, e.g. the exhibition ‘Here Today, Here Tomorrow … Varieties of Medical Ephemera’ at the National Library of Medicine in 1995.

Biomedical material culture also has its durables and its ephemera. A hundred (or even just fifty) years ago, most laboratory utensils were constructed from durable materials and were made to last. One was supposed to wash them, sterilize them and use them over and over again. Our collections are filled with such durables, made of brass, glass, stainless steel, hardwood, ceramics, etc.

Today’s laboratories, on the other hand, are filled with short-lived things made of plastic to be used for the moment. Lots of disposable plastic items: cups and caps, centrifuge tubes, suction catheters, syringes, culture flasks, cover slips, urine collection bags, vials, gloves, petri dishes, etc. etc., to be used once and then thrown out. To the extent that contemporary biomedicine could be described as an ephemeral culture.

To the material ephemerality of the lab could be added a documentary ephemerality, for example in the form of web-based electronic publications instead of books and bound journal volumes. And even the laboratory itself is becoming ephemeral and disposable: whereas the traditional lab has concrete walls, floors, benches and centrifuges, lab-on-a-chip technology represents the ultimate ephemeralization of the biomedical lab space (Richard Buckminster Fuller seems to have used the term ‘ephemeralization‘ in a somewhat different sense).

So I would like to see a collection and exhibition of biomedical ephemera — not of tradecards and pamphlets, but of Eppendorf tubes and plastic tubings mixed with lab websites and felt-tip pens.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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