Tag Archives: wellcome collection

Making the case for museum games

23 Mar
High Tea, from Welcome Collection

High Tea, from Welcome Collection

This is an opinion piece co-written by me and Martha Henson published today in Wellcome News (a publication whose audience is based in scientific research rather than museums). It’s a little bit provocative….

Opinion: “Museums need more compelling games”

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

Do you play games? We might dismiss them as childish, but in his 1938 work Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that play is an essential component of all human culture. The chances are that you enjoy playing something – whether it’s Angry Birds or a round of charades at Christmas.

Globally, gaming is big business, with a market worth an estimated $50 billion (£30bn) in 2011 and a demographically diverse audience with an even gender split. But it’s not just about numbers: the dedication of gamers to the pleasure of play means time spent at the console can exceed that spent with a feature film or novel.

The educational potential seems obvious. So why have museums and educationalists, with all the information and resources at their disposal, failed to make more than a handful of really compelling educational games? The work of game designers and researchers such as Jane McGonigal (author of Reality is Broken) and Channel 4 Education (including the Wellcome Trust-funded Routes) has amply demonstrated the power of games to bring both children and adults cultural and scientific ideas in new forms.

But many have assumed that any game-like feature is enough to engage people, and tacking minimal interactivity onto a barely disguised didactic lesson plan has unfortunately been the dismal standard in this field. However, others, such as the Science Museum, have begun to harness the potential of games for learning. The physics-based Launchball game was hugely popular and they have just released Rizk (about climate change).

We’ve had our own success recently with High Tea, a strategy game centred on the dubious actions of the British Empire in the run-up to the Opium Wars of 1839. From over 1.5m plays in its first fortnight after release, plus comments, reviews and survey responses, we can see that we have achieved both a wide reach and our educational aims.

Why are these particular games successful? Because they put gameplay at the centre of the experience and use experienced digital agencies to deliver this. These examples are a great start, but surely more could be done in this area.

Games might seem a trivial way of approaching the public with new ideas, but the playful and exploratory impulses that draw gamers to great games are still largely untapped as a means of engagement. By pushing boundaries ourselves, we hope to show others what can be achieved.


Visual AIDS

21 Feb
When They Get AIDS, We'll Get a Cure. Enema Productions / Wellcome Library

When They Get AIDS, We'll Get a Cure. Enema Productions / Wellcome Library

Last September, at the Copenhagen conference of medical museums (which is increasingly beginning to seem like a foundational moment for a lot of current thought processes), I was irked by a presentation by Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein on the topic of an exhibition of AIDS posters, in which they said something like…

here, as elsewhere, they were ‘framed’ in agenda-serving classificatory narratives embedded in bricks and mortar. Indeed, from the moment such objects become collectors’ items and are stored and/or displayed as artifacts they become epistemologically loaded through the very process of objectification.

The implication seemed to be (peppered with a handful of the kind of posturing that accepts theoretical analysis as the only permissible standpoint) that there could be no institutional presentation of AIDS posters (for example) that was innocent of, or capable of critique of, its institutional context.

I was irked because I had recently made and written about a selection of AIDS posters from Wellcome’s collection in which I made a particular effort to demonstrate the diversity of the collection by highlighting posters which were critical of the Wellcome drug company, promoted homeopathy, and had had discernible links to radical traditions such as Atelier Populaire. Wasn’t this enough, I asked Cooter and Stein, to which their answer was (reasonably) something like well, we’re not here to criticise you personally: this is a bigger issue about the politics of aesthetics.

Five months later, I’m thinking about AIDS posters again, this time in the context of a term devoted to medicine and visual culture. In some ways, using the AIDS posters as an essay topic gives me an easy way in: I’ve already looked at the material and know what’s in the collection reasonably well. In another, it’s harder, because the academic framework in some ways obliges me to regard what I’ve already thought and written as somehow naive; a stage of investigation superseded by theory.

The essay question goes something like:

How does the Wellcome Library’s archive of AIDS posters help or hinder the understanding of the multiplicity of discourses in which AIDS posters have been seen and discussed?

Starting points: Susan Sontag, whose AIDS and its Metaphors is interesting for its almost total absence of reference to visual metaphors: it’s not like Sontag doesn’t do visual, but when she’s literary, she’s very very literary, and AIDS and its Metaphors very much takes its tone from Illness as a Metaphor. One thing I’d previously noticed in my ‘naive’ research was that the HIV virus itself (an obviously rich source of medical and military metaphor for Sontag and whose distinctive trumpet-flowered globe frequently complements medical discussions of HIV) very rarely appears as an image in any of the AIDS posters in the Wellcome Library collection.

Sander Gilman has written two close visual analyses of images surrounding AIDS. One compares the iconography of AIDS in the late 20th century to the early modern iconography of syphilis, noting similarities in the way its sexual transmission is represented (and the shift in stigma from male victim to female source of pollution) and the portrayal of the isolation and deviance of its sufferers. The second examines the ‘body beautiful’ as a (HIV-)positive image of (homo)sexuality in AIDS posters, deferring the experience of death and dying with eroticised images of risk. He contrasts this to ‘high AIDS art’ which addresses the real physical and mental distress of death and mourning. (It’s interesting to think in this context that while AIDS posters are now generally acclaimed as a successful model of communication and joint purpose in the struggle against AIDS, ‘high’ AIDS art, like David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in my Belly, which deals with precisely the issues of death and mourning that Gilman describes, was recently removed from display at the Smithsonian following right-wing political pressure.)

Then comes the issue of ‘visual culture’ (or ‘visual studies’), as in the course title itself. In terms of ‘medicine and visual culture’ you can take this more or less at face value as a descriptive phrase: the course is about the history and construction of medical images. ‘Visual Culture’, however, has also come into academic existence in the last twenty years as a separate subject with a tenuous and antagonistic relationship to traditional ‘art history’. It attempts to overcome the high art/low art dichotomy that Gilman finds between posters art such as Wojnarowicz’s)  by taking ‘the visual’ as its domain, but takes its methods more from anthropology and cultural studies as from traditional aesthetics. Academics like Douglas Crimp, who edited the issue of October in which Gilman’s comparison of visual representations of syphilis and AIDS appeared, are more or less working in the field of ‘visual culture’.

The world of academia is full of ‘turns’, and this ‘visual turn’ was a response to, and influenced by, the ‘cultural turn’ in literary studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Entirely coincidentally, at the same time I happened across a facebook link to this article about Andrew Ross, victim of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax, which was also interesting in mapping out some of the territory of the ‘cultural turn’. From an autobiographical perspective, I can also see that I was last in academia, studying English Literature in the early 1990s, during the beginning of the decline of this turn to theory, and probably would have been a happier and more successful student without it; needless to say, such a historicising perspective on academia itself was not made available to me at the time.

But then, returning to Cooter and Stein’s key published text on AIDS Posters, ‘Coming into Focus: Posters, power and visual culture in the history of medicine’ I was gratifyingly surprised to find a narrative which framed the emergence of Visual Culture as coincidental, and entwined with, the period in which AIDS posters as a communication medium emerged. Marx’s eclipse by Foucault, whose biopolitics centred on the body, produced new theoretical approaches for which the representation of AIDS in televisual media, advertising and art provided plentiful exemplars, and a consequent ‘focus’ on posters as a subject. There are few academic papers that are almost exhilarating to read, but this was one of them. The approach I found irksome as a museum practitioner is more fruitful in an academic context.

The question of how to construct an essay out of this, however… if the question stands, it seems that I should be testing each instance of theory, from Sontag to Cooter and Stein, against the ‘reality’ of the archive (which of course has its own aesthetic politics in the history of being collected by a private collector in the first place). In some ways this seems a reasonable alternative to looking at the posters through the ‘lens’ of theory; but it might be difficult to avoid becoming a historical walkthrough of the theories available, or worse, a mere rehearsal of Cooter and Stein’s arguments. Perhaps a stronger thread of argument needs to be found.

Core course week 5: Museums of medicine and war

25 Nov
Project Façade, Paddy Hartley

Project Façade, Paddy Hartley

Territory closer to home (indeed I wasn’t expecting to see screenshots from my own website in the presentation) with Suzannah Biernoff in the fifth week of the core course, who presented two contrasting exhibits about war and medicine in the context of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.

Specifically, Suzannah focused on the relationship between art and war; its power to ameliorate the horror of combat, and the changing assumptions about what it is appropriate, or nor appropriate, to look at. The key questions she put before us were:

  • When we encounter medical images, what kind of cultural and imaginative work do they perform?
  • What do these images mean in the context of medical history?
  • Are there ethical issues raised these images redeployment as art, education or entertainment

The first exhibition under consideration was Wellcome Collection’s War and Medicine. As the public face of the Wellcome Trust, Wellcome Collection is not merely an art gallery but also apparently carries some responsibility for publicising the Trust’s work and engaging the public with science. However, War and Medicine carried ‘no straightforward curatorial agenda or message’. Instead, it addressed the dilemmas of medicine in a time of war through a combination of testimony and the juxtaposition of art with scientific and medical objects.

Testimony in medicine is a departure from the enlightenment tradition of the analysis and display of disembodied specimens (here Suzannah namechecked Karen Ingham’s Narrative Remains – unless I simply interpolated that in my notes – as an imaginative work returning subjectivity to the scientific specimen) and medical museums in general are moving away from the standpoint of clinical objectivity.

The exhibition also complicated the idea of progress through bloodshed and exposed the paradox of improving our own health in order to inflict physical damage on our enemies (an issue also touched on by Roger Cooter in his article ‘War and Modern Medicine’ in the Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine). Suzannah suggested though, that the exhibition might have also limited the impact war’s horror through its (possibly vorticist-influenced) design, being perhaps ‘elegantly upsetting’.

In its juxtaposition of art and artifact, Medicine and War begged the question of what art brings to the context. Sexing up, or deeper engagement? Is it to do with Heaney’s ‘Redress of Poetry’, a spiritual balance restored by art, or more to do with mutual illumination, art and science (in the form of medical artifact) throwing each other into productive relief (rather than art merely illustrating or highlighting scientific progress)?

The second exhibition Suzannah presented was the National Army Museum’s Faces of Battle, based on the Gillies Archive, a private surgeon’s own archive of his facial reconstruction work on WWI servicemen. Their status as a non-public archive (therefore not governed by the UK government’s 100-year disclosure rules) is the kind of anomaly that dictates the availability of medical material like this. The exhibition was part of the larger (and also Wellcome Trust-funded) Project Façade, a project by artist Paddy Hartley which deals with the Gillies archive.

Faces of Battle had a clearer curatorial narrative than War and Medicine, making the connections between heroic sacrifice and medical progress clear through the work of Gillies. The exhibition had a different feel to Medicine and War, encouraging emotion rather than reflection or the changing of minds; its location in an army museum rather than a central London gallery also conditioned to some extent the responses generated by it.

Suzannah suggested a diversion of curatorial aims at work. Where Faces of Battle was raw and polarised feelings (some couldn’t stand to be with the images of disfigured soldiers for long), War and Medicine encouraged critical reflection. Both, however, represent two prevalent trends in contemporary medical exhibitions: a turn toward biography and the juxtaposition of art with medicine as a spur to contemplation.

The issue of the limits of the use of medical images, however, emerges in some uses of the Gillies archive that are less tasteful. The revelation that ‘baddie’ characters in the game Bioshock based on recognisable photos of individual servicemen from the Gillies Archive makes you pause to wonder whether indeed these images ought to be protected in some way, and leads us back ultimately to Sontag’s question of what purpose there is in looking at the images of others’ pain.

‘Medical London’, Flickr, and the photography of everyday medicine

1 Oct
Saw, by David Edwards on Flickr

Saw, by David Edwards on Flickr

This is the text of a long abstract for a presentation given at the 15th biannual conference of the European Association of Museums for the History of Medical Sciences (EAMHMS), “Contemporary Medical Science and Technology as a Challenge for Museums” in Copenhagen on 16 September 2010. The original abstract included images; I have replaced them here with links to Flickr for convenience.

The explosion of digital photography in the last ten years has had an enormous impact on the practice of taking pictures. Digital cameras have made possible the production of a vastly increased number of personal photographs while the internet has provided practically unbounded means of access and distribution through photo-sharing websites like Flickr.

In 2010 Wellcome Collection set up a Flickr pool on the theme of ‘Medical London’ as an extension of our existing off/online Medical London project. In itself, this is no innovation: as Romeo and Waterson have noted, the Flickr pool is “a well-established museum outreach genre”[1]. It is no accident that Flickr is the photo-sharing website of choice for cultural heritage institutions. Where Facebook situates photography in a social aspect and Google’s Picasa excels in desktop integration, Flickr, and Flickr users, emphasise the aesthetic content of photographs themselves.

However, outreach is usually as far as museums’ Flickr projects go. Success is frequently measured by quantitative criteria (participation, entries) rather than any critical or curatorial measure. Although Galani and Moschovi contend that “contemporary amateur photographs as generated and published through social media applications have increasingly captured the curatorial imagination”[2] this has so far mostly been limited to curators and exhibitors working in the area of photography itself. Though the “internet stew” of photo-sharing websites like Flickr may be exactly where “the museum’s curatorial function is sorely lacking” according to Fred Ritchin[3], few non-photographic museums seem to have considered in detail what they might take, examine or curate from Flickr itself.

If photography has become pervasive, medicine always has been: a constant part of our lives both personally and socially. Photography might also have a therapeutic aspect: preserving the moment of life forever, where medicine ultimately fails. The Medical London pool, offering a theme both concrete and open, offers an opportunity to see where photography and medicine intersect. It is sufficiently local to attract what might be a community; there are enough potential subjects to avoid repetition. What follows is an attempt to use this pool to draw out some of the subjects, aesthetics and perspectives that might be of use to a medical museum in understanding and re-presenting everyday medicine. Six subject areas or possible approaches to the material are explored with examples.

In preparing this paper I’ve taken into account both the legal aspects of licensing on Flickr (only photos appropriately licensed or for which specific permission was given are included here: URLs for complete galleries are given alongside the pictures). I’ve also considered intentionality by only including images whose creators placed them in the pool, which suggests that they considered (however minimally) that the picture has a medical aspect, and can be understood by others in a medical context.

1. Objects

Through the Flickr pool we have access to images of objects which the museum does not possess. Pictures of hospital badges belonging to healthcare workers, medical instruments, charity boxes and large pieces of medical equipment have all been submitted to the pool. Where online we often consider a gallery of photographic images of objects to constitute meaningful access to our own collections, we might ask now whether it is possible to curate and present others’ images of objects.

Objects gallery

2. Location

Geospatial coordinates are an increasingly common property of photographs. Whether applied using Flickr’s map tools, or added by a GPS-aware mobile device, many pictures in  the Medical London pool include information about where they were taken. On the map below, each pink dot represents one of the images in the strip, plotted onto the place where it was taken. If embedded in a form accessible to a mobile device, the potential exists to turn the city itself into a museum of its own medical history: from every location we can access nearby significant buildings, objects and events.

Interactive map

3. Documenting surgery

David Edwards documented his own bunion surgery in February 2007. As podiatric surgeons worked on his foot, a student podiatrist took pictures using Edwards’ camera. Here, the procedural becomes personal and while the foot remains the site of the operation, the subjectivity of the photography changes subtly: the pictures of the operation are authored by the patient.

Surgery gallery

4. Protest

Medicine has a social dimension, and even socialised healthcare in Europe is not simply a static service in which medics provide care to patients. A restructuring of services can spark protests by both healthcare workers and the local community. Here, the Flickr pool helps to provide a record of the dynamics of a changing health service in London.

Protest gallery

5. Other cures

Living in a multicultural city reminds us that ‘Western Medicine’ is no longer a primarily geographical category. The evidence of Chinese medicine, herbalism, homeopathy and other cures is everywhere in street photography, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally. The ‘health food’ store is a sight as common as a pharmacy; while all cures might not be equal or even reputable, they all form a part of a medical landscape.

Other cures gallery

6. A new aesthetic: the empty hospital

The image of the hospital’s interior is familiar: wide corridors interrupted by fire doors; staff in uniform, patients in gowns and visitors in everyday dress; trolleys and other medical equipment. In the Flickr pool, through a combination of artists, healthcare workers, and ‘urban explorers’ investigating abandoned buildings, we unexpectedly discover a new aesthetic. The hospital, its spacious areas now bare, takes on an eerie feeling, like an empty diorama.

Empty hospitals gallery

Having seen its variety and considered its content, we might usefully ask in what ways the Medical London Flickr pool materially differs from a traditional photographic archive. Firstly, it is ongoing and open, offering a wide variety of subjects and modes, and few restrictions on submissions. Secondly, it is multiply authored, by both amateur and professional photographers. Thirdly, it can be collaboratively curated: galleries selected from it like the ones above can be made by anyone. Lastly, linked only by a strong but mutable idea, ‘Medical London’ photographs are open to constant reinterpretation by the photographers, the museum and others. As a nascent community it has yet to (and may never) develop any shared senses of photographic priorities. But the most important aspect of the pool is its capacity to offer us surprises: to see new subjects, aesthetics and understandings in what is offered to us.

If we wish to re-present these surprises to our audiences, how might we integrate the medical Flickr pool into the medical museum itself? In one way we already have, simply by connecting its online content to our existing presence: we are already used to museum exhibitions and projects having many limbs. If we wished to physically integrate these images into the museum, we might install a screen that dynamically highlights recent additions to the pool, as the Denver Art Museum does[4]. Or we might display the winners of a competition hosted by Flickr and integrate comments from Flickr into gallery interpretations, as the National Maritime Museum has[5].

Flickr has already proved to be highly effective at attracting audience engagement with the subject matter and collections of the museum. The curatorial question for museums now is how to engage with what audiences have produced. For a medical museum in particular, the challenge is how to find fresh perspectives from the mass of available material that we could loosely describe as ‘everyday medicine’. The ultimate result, however, will not be something that the museum has acquired, but rather something that it has fostered and shared.






I would like to thank all the individually credited Flickr users for permission to use their photos in this paper, whether granted personally or through the use of Creative Commons licences.


[1]Romeo, F. and N. Waterson, ‘Flickr as Platform: Astronomy Photographer of the Year’. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted July 12, 2010. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/romeo/romeo.html

[2] Galani, Areti and Moschovi, Alexandra (2010) ‘Trans/forming Museum Narratives: The Accommodation of “Photography 2.0” in Contemporary Exhibitions’ in Transforming Culture in the Digital Age International Conference 2010: Proceedings. Consulted July 12, 2010. http://dspace.utlib.ee/dspace/handle/10062/14768

[3] Ritchin, Fred. After Photography. W. W. Norton & Co., 2008. p 115

[4] ‘Progressive photography policy’, photograph on Flickr  flickr.com/dannybirchall/4539113403

[5] Romeo, F. and N. Waterson, 2010

The challenge in Copenhagen

22 Sep
Biomedicine on display at Copenhagen's Medical Museion

Biomedicine on display at Copenhagen's Medical Museion

15th Biannual Conference of the European Association of Museums for the History of Medical Sciences: ‘Contemporary Medical Science and Technology as a Challenge to Medical Museums.’

For medical museums, whose collections are typically composed of evocative historical objects, developments in contemporary biomedicine offer a twofold challenge to collecting and exhibiting. The first challenge is the nature of contemporary biomedical equipment: large, expensive, and without immediately obvious function (think fMRI scanner). Where a display of surgeons’ tools can be both instructive and chilling, a collection of grey-box scanners and robotic surgical suites is likely to offer both historians and visitors less. The second challenge is more fundamental: medical investigation and treatment now operates beyond the limits of the visible, at the level of genes and proteins, a scale which it is hard to relate to our own bodies and lived experience. Even the beautifully-limned image of an SEMmed protein can’t offer the visceral thrill of corporeal recognition that a pickled heart in a jar does.

That’s the ‘challenge’ that the EAMHMS met in Copenhagen, under the expert and provocative direction of Thomas Söderqvist, director of the Medical Museion, to discuss. Subjects were wide-ranging, from issues in object collection, through applications of new media, to artistic interventions. What follows isn’t a comprehensive overview, but rather a personal narrative and an account of what interested & inspired me (and also partly a simple aide-mémoire) — I haven’t done justice to, or in some cases even mentioned, some fine presentations and papers here. The conference was filmed by Medical Museion staff, and selected presentations should make their way online sometime; check Biomedicine on Display, the MM’s English-language research blog.

The conference happened in the form of a workshop, with long abstracts circulated in advance, and short 8-minute presentations (promptly terminated with the aid of a 50Kr kitchen timer) clustered into themes. Proper understanding and discussion of the presentations depended on participants having read the abstracts in advance, and the majority of attendees were also presenters: there was a definite atmosphere of sharing and learning rather than presentation and absorption.

Thursday’s proceedings began in the rather dramatic (but uncomfortable) environment of the Medical Museion’s operating theatre, built in the 1780s for the building’s function as the Danish Royal Academy of Surgeons (James Edmondson’s Dittrick blog post on the Museum is a good visual tour of the environment). Alas, speakers were presenting not the cavities of executed criminals’ corpses, but mostly powerpoint slides.

Kim Sawchuck opened the proceedings with a discussion of ‘biotourism’, taking in the twentieth century’s fascination with the macro and the micro (one of her slides was a fabulous juxtaposition of two strikingly similar Time magazine covers, one featuring a telescope, the other a microscope), and the Franklin Institute’s walk-through heart. Kerstin Hulter Åsberg, Wendy Atkinson and Robert Martensen then presented plans for new museums and displays in Uppsala, Lyon and at the National Institutes of Health respectively.

My own session, in which I was paired with Ramunas Kondratas, late of the Smithsonian and now establishing a national medical museum in Vilnius, explored the idea of enhancing our understanding with new media. Ramunas presented footage from a project documenting the manufacture of medical instruments, and in particular the manufacturing history of the ultracentrifuge in the United States. It was interesting to see in Ramunas’ footage of a factory at work the role of blue collar workers explaining how instruments are made, rather than expert scientists explaining what they do. In my presentation I proposed that contemporary medicine could be understood through the photos that people take and share of objects, spaces, healthcare-related protests, and their own medical history (a post of my own abstract will follow).

Joanna Ebenstein, of Morbid Anatomy, and Brooklyn’s Observatory, finished up the first day’s proceedings by suggesting that the tradition of the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities could offer a better path to engagement than education-driven science centres; this sparked some debate about agendas vs mystification, and whether the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Skin’ exhibition could could have any scientific or moral coherence if it ignored the subject of race.

Friday opened in the rather more comfortable surroundings of the Danish Museum of Art and Design (housed, fittingly, in a former hospital). Judy Chelnick of the Smithsonian discussed the challenges of collecting contemporary medical objects when storage space is at a premium: all new acquisitions over a certain size and value have to pass through committee approval. John Durant’s presentation revolved around the relationship between engagement-focused displays and collecting priorities in the biomedical cluster around Boston and MIT, where developmental medical equipment quickly bites the dust in a forward-looking research environment.

Moving from collections to visitors, Stella Mason discussed visitor surveys which reveal that a larger-than-expected number of visitors to medical museums have medical connections, suggesting that we might reach out further to the ‘casual visitor’. Alex Tyrell presented the results of ‘co-curating’ a part of the Science Museum’s new ‘Who Am I?’ galleries with a group of London teenagers. The process involved a lot of questioning of gallery assumptions like the length and seriousness of interpretation labels. There was some scepticism about non-expert curation, and the ability of teenagers to tell us anything new about what we are looking at; nevertheless it seems clear that the exclusive preserve of professional curators over the domain of displays cannot be indefinitely sustained.

A lunchtime tour backstage took us to the undisplayed collections, and a personal impromptu handling of an antique lithoclast, a medical-historical object which evokes precisely that archetypal feeling of medical museums: a physical shudder at the very thought of the procedure embodied in the instrument (penetration of the body’s intimate orifices — without anaesthetic!) combined with gratitude and appreciation for the ongoing development of medicine that spares us such pain.

And then art. Nina Czegledy presented the case for the display of illustrations as objects, irreducible to reproductions, and in particular the illustrations in Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy, carbon dust halftones produced by illustrators Dorothy Chubb and Nancy Joy. These are problematic to display, being neither old enough to be considered properly ‘historical’ illustrations, nor ‘contemporary’ art; nevertheless they powerfully demonstrate the continuing power and utility of medical illustration well into the era of photography.

Lucy Lyons presented drawing in another aspect: as an examination of the unknown, a way of visually understanding objects beyond looking at them, using the humble pencil as an investigative tool. She runs drawing workshops at the Medical Museion with staff and other participants, concentrating not on producing a drawing as an output, but on greater understanding through the practice and process of drawing.

From visible art we moved to invisible worlds and the challenge of images taken at a microscopic level. Henrik Treimo presented the Invisible World exhibition from the
Norwegian Museum for Science, Technology and Medicine, which included not only images taken at tiny resolutions but also the ever-growing machines necessary to create them.

Thomas Söderqvist and Wellcome Collection’s Ken Arnold ended the day with a scattergun presentation of their new Dogme manifesto for STEM museums, borrowing the principal of fidelity from the local Dogme 95 filmmaking movement. Banishing artificial light from displays, never talking down to children and excluding the internet from exhibitions are all items on the manifesto. Importantly, in the context of contemporary biomedicine, the manifesto also recommends working closely with researchers and scientists (presenting research practice rather than disseminating results), while still embracing showbusiness and playfulness (‘the wow of chastity’).

Saturday morning began with a discussion of the problem of foetal display. Sniff Nexo’s presentation highlighted the transparency and invisibility of the female body when we look at the foetus, either in a glass jar or in modern ‘vanity’ ultrasound scanning: we see the baby but not its mother. Suzanne Anker has worked with redisplaying fetal specimens, including in the context of her show The Glass Veil at the Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité. There was some concern about not only the interpretation, but also the reinterpretation of images of medical specimens (the Hunterian Museum, for instance, doesn’t allow public photography of its specimens).

I then had a couple of epiphanies in quick succession. Nurin Veis’ presentation on telling the story of the cochlear implant (also a story of Australian national pride) raised again the question of black box technology, objects whose purpose and function is obscured in their similarity. But looking at various bits of electronics, circuit board and their containers it seemed obvious that all objects have an aesthetic and style; it’s just often hard to see this in objects that are temporally close to us. Yves Thomas’ presentation on the use of multimedia only seemed to emphasise for me that perhaps we should not be using multimedia as a substitute for objects, but as another means of investigating and explaining them.

Adam Bencard followed up at the other end of the spectrum of the invisible, suggesting that there are subtle but real relationships between our molecular existence and our lived experience; and that indeed a shift in medical emphasis from code-oriented genomics to chemically-oriented proteomics carried a corresponding shift back to our understanding of ourselves as physically constituted, if not quite the same nineteenth century bank of organs (for me personally a new way into bioscience beyond the neo-Calvinism of genetic prescription). He offered examples of scientists who described proteins with highly physical gestures, and the protein-folding game fold.it, a distributed science project that relies on humans to solve spatial problems which computers can’t. He also suggested that flat ontology might offer a key to our understanding of ourselves not as determined by a chain of genes and proteins but as material beings from micro to macro.

Aesthetic theory finally caught up with us on Saturday afternoon. Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine presented a critique of Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg’s exhibition of AIDS posters, arguing that aesthetic values in the presentation of the totality of an ‘art’ exhibition and collection undermined the understanding of political currents and differences at work in the ‘global’ struggle against AIDS. Personally, I found the double-pronged nature of their theoretical assault problematic. Exhibition-making is of course a political process like any other, and stands to be critiqued like any other practice: culture is the global domain of cultural studies. However, if political understanding is needed in the selection and arrangement of material (something I self-consciously tried to achieve in my own institution’s selection of AIDS posters, exposing conflict between patients and drug companies, and tracing connections with the protest tradition of 1968) then the practicalities of exhibition-making have to be addressed, and a retreat into the academic domain of super-critique is not an acceptable substitute.

Artist Karen Ingham presented some of her work, which often relates to existing medical collections and displays. Narrative Remains, a project in collaboration with the Hunterian, gave voice to bottled surgical specimens, placing the narratives between the objects and the viewer in a number of ways, including on display cases, and in a 12-minute moving image work. Ingham stressed the importance of collaboration rather than commission in her work: she does not make pieces that travel from gallery to gallery, but site-specific works related to particular collections.

Thomas Schnalke closed the workshop with a return to the opening suggestion that all our museum games might be at an end. His answer, put into practice at Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum, is artists’ interventions. Using the museum space to display work that makes connections between existing object collections and contemporary biomedicine offers new ways for audiences to make connections with biomedicine and also for artists to work with science and scientists.

A challenge met is not yet a problem solved. Nevertheless, the people who gathered in Copenhagen for three days to address these issues are as creative and perceptive a bunch as any that you could hope to meet it, and the ideas developed there are, for me, excellent frameworks for ongoing thought.

Taming agendas

21 Mar
In The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas, part of last week’s New York Times museums special, Edward Rothstein posits Wellcome Collection’s expansiveness:
One of the most astonishing collections I have seen is the Wellcome Collection, also in London. It includes moccasins owned by Florence Nightingale, Napoleon’s toothbrush, amputation saws, an array of prosthetic limbs, a Portuguese executioner’s mask, Etruscan votive offerings and obstetrical forceps. Henry Wellcome, who had made his fortune with the invention of the medicinal pill, owned over a million objects by the mid-1930s and imagined them fitting into a great “Museum of Man” that would encyclopedically trace humanity’s concerns with the body. After his death, the collection was partly dispersed, but even what is left is as exhilarating as it is bewildering. You look at such collections and sense an enormous exploratory enterprise. You end up with an enlarged understanding of the world’s variety and an equally enlarged sense of the human capacity to make sense of it.
against science museums with more specific and critical agendas:
This model of advocacy has even become explicit at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, where its president, Emlyn Koster, has stressed his wish for “relevancy” and an interest in developing “social and environmental responsibility.” The flaws in the natural order remain precisely the same. Humans, we learn in various exhibitions, “pose the greatest danger” to certain creatures, “damage” the climate and are in turn threatened by disaster and pandemic. Humanity isn’t only decentered; it is decentering.