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Biomedicine in museums

The 'material turn' — why aren't museums and collection curators collaborating more with humanities scholars?

By December 21, 2011No Comments

Consider this quote:

A historian of the not-too-distant future will describe this past decade as marking the “material turn.” If language, and eventually culture, came to distinguish a generational shift in scholarly focus in the second half of the twentieth century, what is occurring now across the range of the humanities—from English literature to the history of science—is a new and deep attention to materiality. Historically oriented scholars are finding in the physical embodiments of knowledge new questions and new perspectives from which to address seemingly “closed,” or at least familiar, issues.

(from the announcement of the new book series Cultural Histories of the Material World launched by Bard Graduate Center and the University of Michigan Press; the first volume will be out in 2012.)

What’s really interesting about this quote (see the full text here) is not the acute observations about the recent “material turn” and “physical embodiments of knowledge”, or the programmatic claim that what is occuring now in the humanities is a “new and deep attention to materiality”. That goes without saying.

No, what’s really interesting is the absence of any reference to museums.

I don’t think this is conscious exclusion from the side of the Bard Graduate Center. It’s rather that museums and collection curators have not been very good at making their study of material artefacts interesting for humanities scholars. Curators are working with material objects all the time. But they are not good at telling humanities professors and students about their work. So, generally speaking, museums and their collections have had rather little contact with current university-based humanistic scholarship.

This lack of contact was probably a good protection of curatorial work during the decades from the 1970s to the late 1990s, when humanities department were dominated by the linguistic turn. But it doesn’t make sense now when academics too are increasingly directing their gaze to material culture. On the contrary — both university-based humanities and museum institutions have everything to gain from a closer collaboration.

Because humanistic scholars have a well-sharpened armamentarium of interesting theoretical approaches to the study of material culture, and they have an overflow of well-educated and smart students ready to use museum collections for research purposes.

And vice versa because museums have well-trained curators, who don’t theorize and write about materiality in general terms only, but have a lot of concrete and tactile knowledge about specific artefacts, their history and material composition.

In other words, more and deeper joint ventures between humanities programmes and museums could be very fruitful. University museums are, almost by definition, particulalry well-placed to forge such bonds between curatorial and university-based humanities practices. This is what we are trying to do on a humble scale here at Medical Museion in Copenhagen — see for example Jan Erik Olsén’s project on the material history of blindness — but I think we could do much, much more.

If anyone knows of succesful collaborative projects between museums curators and humanities scholars interested in material culture, it would be great to hear more about them — please comment below.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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