Biomedicine in museums

The material life-course of a scientist

I’m participating with a paper titled “The material life-course of a scientist” at workshop ‘The Return of Biography: Reassessing Life Stories in Science Studies’ to be held at Science Museum, London, on 18 July.

There are many things I would like to take issue with in this call for papers: Isn’t the notion of ‘return’ of biography long overdue? Does the notion of ‘biographies’ of things and places make sense? Are biography and historiography necessarily narrative (story-telling) genres? Is it really true that the role of the individual in historical writing hasn’t diminished?

But given the restriction of a 20 minutes talk and my need to say something new, I would rather like to engage with the explicit point of departure for this meeting (Science Museum’s Turing-exhibition), and ask: Are biographical museum exhibitions really possible?

I haven’t seen Codebreaker yet (will certainly do so before the workshop), but I have long been thinking about making a biographical exhibition at Medical Museion, because I would like to be able to combine the two major strands of my scholarly life: Writing (about) biography and curating (and reflecting on) the use of material artefacts in science museum exhibitions.

So far, however, I haven’t been able to make one. There are two reasons for this. One is more conceptual, having to do with the uncertain role of material things in the life-courses of scientists as opposed to the role of ideas, concepts, writing, etc. The other reason is more practical: scientists often save their documents and images for archives but rarely donate their material things to museum collections, which makes it difficult to display the material life of an individual scientist.

Thus, the ‘material turn’ in the humanities doesn’t easily translate into an artifact-based museum exhibition about the course of a life in science.

And here’s the programme as a whole:

The Return of Biography: Reassessing Life Stories in Science Studies, 18 July 2013, Science Museum, London (see more here)

10.15 Introductory remarks
10.30 Panel Discussion: The Pleasures and Perils of Biography
– Georgina Ferry, author of Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life (1998) and Max Perutz and the Secret of Life (2007)
– Andrew Nahum, author of Frank Whittle: Invention of the Jet (2005) and Senior Keeper at the
Science Museum
– Henry Hemming, author of In Search of the English Eccentric (2008), and a forthcoming biography of the inventor, educationalist and writer Geoffrey Pyke

(12.00 Lunch)

13.00 Biography Case Studies
– Salim Al-Gailani (University of Cambridge), ‘Domestic Science: Life Writing, Religion and Medical Identity in Edinburgh around 1900’
– Kelly O’Donnell (Yale University), ‘The Muckraker: Science Writing as Radical Critique, 1967–1977’
– Oliver Marsh (University of Cambridge), ‘The Life Cycle of a Star: Media Myths of Feynman and Sagan’
– Peter Collins (Royal Society), ‘Sources for the Biography of an Institution’

14.30 Keynote: Janet Vertesi (Princeton University), ‘Robotic Biographies: Living with/through NASA Spacecraft’

(15.30 Break: tea and refreshments)

16.00 The Biographical Mode
– Geoffrey Cantor (University of Leeds), ‘Do Scientists Have Minds?’
– Sally Horrocks (University of Leicester/National Life Stories), ‘Do Scientists Have Lives? Oral History as a Methodological Tool for Finding Out’
– Thomas Söderqvist (Medical Museion, Copenhagen), ‘The Material Life-Course of a Scientist’
– Commentary by Ludmilla Jordanova (University of Durham)

(17.30 End of workshop: tea and refreshments)

Dinner Event
18.15 Tour of Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy led by exhibition curator David Rooney
19.15 Drinks reception followed by Dinner in the landmark Who Am I? gallery
22.30 Close

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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