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Biomedicine in museums

The visual bias of the word 'display'

The previous post made me think about how we use the word ‘display’. I always use it as a synonym for visual display. But in principle, I guess, the display of medicine could involve any of the senses: auditory, olfactory, tactile etc..

My spontaneous ‘visualisation’ of the display category reflects, I suppose, what has been called the ‘hegemony of the visual’ in contemporary Western culture. That is, the other senses are subdued in cultural representations. It’s an issue that has been explored by, for example, Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell in their edited volume Interpreting Visual Culture: Exploration in the Hermeneutics of the Visual (1999), and which also underlays a classic essay on ‘scopic regimes of modernity’ by Martin Jay.

‘The hegemony of the visual’ is probably often pretty unproblematic since much of the contemporary world can safely be reduced to its visuality (just see all those who walk around town with an iPod that blocks out all urban sounds). In representations of medicine, however, such hegemony seems inappropriate. Even though medicine is characterised by so many ‘scopic regimes’ (from microscopes to PET-scanners), it is also a very multisensuous practice.

In other words, the life of the clinic involves as much smells and sounds as a bazaar in Damascus — the smell of infected wounds, the vapours of desinfective agents, the metallic sounds of instruments, the humming of monitors, and so forth. And few social worlds (except perhaps contact sports) involve as much touching as the hospital clinic.

Many museums (e.g., war museums) have brought sound into their exhibitions, but so far I have not been impressed. Maybe because the sound effects are precisely effects, i.e., they are added to the visual representations in order to arouse emotions in the visitor. But they are usually not thought of as independent representational domains.

A truly auditory representation of contemporary medicine is probably best experienced on radio. But olfactory representations need an independent space, like a museum. So, who starts the first olfactory medical museum display where you can experience the (at least initial) sensation of ether or chloroform anaesthetics, and the smell of gangrenous bodily decay?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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