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Biomedicine in museums

Touching medical objects as if they were sculptures

By November 13, 2007No Comments

I’m curious about the ‘Sculpture and Touch Symposium’ to be held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, 16-17 May 2008. The organisers open the call for papers with a quote from Goethe (from Römische Elegien):

Marble comes doubly alive for me then, as I ponder, comparing / Seeing with vision that feels, feeling with fingers that see

and then go on to describe the aim of the meeting:

Since the Renaissance, at least, the medium of sculpture has been linked explicitly to the sense of touch. Sculptors, philosophers and art historians have all related the two, often in strikingly different ways. In spite of this long running interest in touch and tactility, in recent decades vision and visuality have tended to dominate art historical research.

Couldn’t agree more! (This is analogous to Adam’s analysis of contemporary historiography of the body). Questions addressed include:

  • In what sense does beholding sculpture enlist tactile sensations, even where direct physical contact is impossible?
  • How do sculptors anticipate the possibility of physical interaction with their work?
  • Does sculpture have a privileged relationship to the sense of touch?
  • Are there sculptures that repel or avoid the sense of touch?
  • Is talk about touch and sculpture largely metaphorical?
  • In what ways are tactile sensations mediated by vision?
  • How far should art historical theory and language draw on the insights of the psychology and physiology of touch?

The organisers invite contributions also from scholars in disciplines beyond art history, including (I suppose) medical historians and students of medical science studies, so this would in fact be a great opportunity to follow up on some of the themes from the Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context workshop in August and the presentation that Jan Eric and I gave at the Artefacts XII meeting in Oslo in September.

In Oslo we were mainly thinking of instruments, but the history of medicine is in fact full of (touchable) sculptures, from early modern sculptures of Saint Sebastian to the contemporary Noëlle robotic birth simulator. And lots in between.

Wonder if art historians would accept the Noëlle birth simulator as sculpture? Or if they think that its sculpture-ness is acquired only after it has been taken out of its immediate medical context and transferred to a museum or art gallery? (I can’t help associate to Damien Hirst’s 1991 pickled shark).

Send 300 word proposals for presentations to Peter Dent ( before 30 November. More info here.

What do you say, Jan Eric? Shall we give it a try?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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