Archive for the 'material studies' Category

aesthetics, material studies, Museion concept, science communication studies

Whither the material culture of science?

A quick quote from Isabelle Stengers interesting book Cosmopolitics I (published in the series Posthumanities), which I feel sums up some of what we try to do at the Museion when we integrate aesthetics, politics, science communication and material culture:

“The sciences, as they are taught, that is, as they are presented once their results are unlinked from the practice of science “as it is practiced,” do not have a meaning that is appreciably different from a religious engine of war, poiting out the path to salvation, condemning sin and idolatry.”

This idea of science as ‘a religious engine of war’ is crucial in understanding some of the denialism and science-scepticism that exists all around us – people are getting weary and wary with the ever-changing landscape of scientific ‘facts’. Showing science as embodied and material practice – science in the making – is, I think, one way of re-linking science as it is taught to science as it is practiced, and thereby hopefully deepening the understanding of what science is/can be.

collections, conferences, curation, material studies, museum studies, recent biomed

Artefacts meeting in Leiden — final programme

Eventually, the final program for the annual Artefacts meeting (this year in Leiden), has just been sent out. Three of us here at Medical Museion (Louise Whiteley, Niels Vilstrup and myself) are going — here are Louise’s and my abstracts:

Louise Whiteley: Preserving the material culture of functional neuroimaging: Objects of process
Functional neuroimaging research aims to reveal the physical basis of the mind. Since the late 1980s, functional neuroimaging has been a prominent player in contemporary neuroscience, and its strong public profile and invocation in policy contexts also argue for the importance of preserving and engaging with its material culture. Yet brain scanners are not natural museum objects; huge, heavy, and expensive, their most salient sensory qualities derive from the operation of a giant magnet cooled by helium gas and encased in a shielded room. Here I argue that attending to the trajectory from experiment design to data presentation offers us an array of new objects to consider, and new possibilities for engagement with this potent technology. I discuss the collection of computer tasks designed to recreate phenomena such as love or religious experience in the scanner; of objects such as vats of earplugs, restraining cages, and stimulus delivery devices; and of brain scans considered as contingent endpoints of fluid, computational analysis. Finally, I consider how distributed curation of such ‘objects of process’ could bring into productive interaction the interests of neuroscientists, visitors, and a developing critical discourse about the social implications of neuroimaging that is already challenging boundaries of expertise.

Louise Whiteley is an Assistant Professor at Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen. She has a PhD in Neuroscience and MSc in Science Communication, co-directed the Wellcome Trust funded public engagement project Interior Traces, and recently completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Neuroethics. She is interested in using qualitative research to both study and shape public engagement with the social, ethical, and philosophical ‘implications’ of contemporary biomedical science.

Thomas Soderqvist: COLLECTION IMPOSSIBLE: Distributed curatorship and crowd-sourcing as alternatives to centralised collecting
Centralised collecting of the artefacts from contemporary science, technology and medical (STM) visual and material culture seems to have rather bleak prospects. The looming financial and social global crisis is not conducive to centralized efforts by big museums to save the contemporary STM heritage, not least because the modern state-subsidised museum institution is running out of funding (at least in the West). What can curators then do to uphold their professional obligation to rescue the contemporary STM heritage for future generations? In this paper I will discuss two alternative collecting strategies: distributed curatorship and crowd-sourcing. I suggest that the major aim of STM museum acquisition curators should rather be to raise the general awareness among scientists and the engineering and medical professions of the importance of preserving ‘their’ artefacts (heritagemindedness). Drawing on a historical analogy (biological standardisation in the 1950s), I also suggest that this aim might be achieved best by working out guidelines for the collection, preservation and curation of artefacts to be distributed to individual scientists, doctors and engineers in research institutions and private companies, and to interested members of the public. Presently, social media is probably the best vehicle for producing such guidelines and spreading them widely.

Thomas Soderqvist is professor in the history of medicine and Director of Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen. His research specialty is the history and historical methodology of 20th century life sciences and medicine (e.g., The Historiography of Contemporary Science and Technology, co-ed, 2007), and he has also written about the problems of collecting and displaying contemporary medical science and technology.

material studies, visual studies

Greenaway has got it wrong: there is no ‘visual illiteracy’ — but there is a widespread ‘material illiteracy’.

The last issue of ICOM’s e-Newsletter (June-July 2011) carries a short summary of Peter Greenaway‘s presentation “The New Visual Literacy” at ICOM’s 2011 Annual Meeting, in which the British film maker showed images to encourage ‘visual awareness’ among museum people and support his dictum: ‘the image always has the last word’:

Displaying his signature wit and stage presence, he spoke of a widespread visual illiteracy due to an essentially text-based culture and discussed the global museum’s obligation in this new digital age to promote the visual.

I’m not sure I agree. Ours is a text-based culture, indeed. But I see few signs of a ‘visual illiteracy’ when I look around. Visuality is ubiquitous. There are pictures, images, signs, photographs, stills, videos etc. everywhere. Television, DVD players and visual games have inundated our homes. The web is overflowing with images. Almost every online news story is accompanied by a short video clip. Has Greenaway visited Youtube, Google Images or Flickr? Greenaway is speaking in terms of his own visual interests — but by doing so he is flogging a dead horse.

Why does ICOM support this idea of a ‘visual illiteracy’? Museums ought to be the first to direct our attention to the erosion of a common awareness about the material basis of culture. Given the ubiquitous visual and digital awareness and literacy in today’s culture, ICOM would better focus on the need for a new material literacy.

material studies, science communication studies

Science communication after information

Even more thoughts after reading How We Became Posthuman (other posts are here and here). I think part of my fascination with the book is that it inadvertently articulates what I see to be a watershed change that has happened in the past ten years or so – the change from an informational paradigm to a new, more material one. And working with science communication now, the need to articulate the contours of this change seems urgent.

One of the key elements in Hayles’ book is the detailed analysis of how information lost its body. Information, she argues, gained an almost transcendental status, as something that could move more or less unaffected through different media. It was as if the world was given a new realm of being, a pure digital substratum where information cascaded through different material substrates, changing everything as it went along. This, Hayles argues, lead to vacating an old model of understanding the world based on presence and absence, in favor of a new digital world where informational terms such as pattern, randomness, signal and noise were key. We thought we would leave the flesh behind and submerged ourselves (or at least our brains) in the digital sea.

But it just did not turn out that way. We are now standing on the shore, wet and freezing, attempting to refigure our senses to a new reality (much as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht suggests in the quote in this post).

This is (amongst other things) why I believe science communication is becoming a political and theoretical focal point. Our understanding of communication itself, how ideas, emotions and affects are spread, is morphing. We need new tools with which to communicate in this new reality; or rather, we need to figure out what this new reality is like and how we should maneuver in it. The contours are at best blurry. If science communication was predicated on a specific understanding of information (signal to noise) and that mode is no longer as valid and obvious as earlier, where does that leave us? If there is a return to presence and absence as a communicative model, where does that leave science communication?

It is symptomatic that Matthew Nisbett (of Framing Science-fame) renamed and relaunched his influential blog as Age of Engagement. The is good reason for attempting to develop new, more material conceptualizations of science communication right now, me thinks.

abstracts, conferences, material studies, recent biomed

Molecular being – philosophy between genes and proteins

I have had a paper accepted for the annual joint conference of the Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy. Here is the abstract:

Molecular being – philosophy between genes and proteins

In this paper, I will attempt to connect the sparking wires of post-genomic molecular biology and new materialist philosophy, particularly the so-called object-oriented ontology.

Life is changing. The gene has, as historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller wrote some years ago, “had a glorious run in the twentieth century.” Since the publication of the working draft of the human genome in 2000 and the completed genome in 2003, however, it seems that the life sciences are at a juncture, requiring new concepts, terms and metaphors to grasp life in productive ways. It is increasingly being suggested that a straightforward relation between genes and their expressions is not tenable. The faith in the genome as the key with which to understand, decipher and decode ‘life itself’ is changing, partly due to the realisation that the translation process from gene to cell is a world unto itself. In other words, the list of parts that the Human Genome Project revealed turned out not to be a complete wiring diagram.

Post-genomic biomedicine is increasingly turning to the study of proteins for new concepts, terms and metaphors. In the hands of 21st century biomedical scientists, ‘life itself’ is taking on new forms. The understanding of life is shifting towards ideas of a multidimensional material body, made up of a complex system of proteins, where molecular structures, movements and interactions carry out the regulated work of the cell. Post-genomic researchers are no longer satisfied reducing the organism to the informational logic of coding system embedded in biological software (DNA); rather, the organism is now increasingly seen as a substantive, material architecture, filled to the brim with three-dimensional protein interactions.

Molecular biology, then, seems to be reconfiguring its underlying conception of life. And philosophy is similarly finding itself “in the middle of time and in the middle of objects, with a desire to become part of this material world,” as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht writes. The change from a genetic to a protein-based understanding of life in molecular biology runs in an interesting parallel, I will argue, to the attempts to develop new material and object-oriented ontologies. Using empirical examples from the world of molecular biology and protein research, I will argue that understanding what takes place within molecular biology and its changing conceptions of life can be fruitfully accomplished at the intersections of philosophy, genes and proteins.

conferences, material studies

Things in culture, culture in things

Thing afficionados still have a week left to consider an abstract for the conference ‘Things in culture, culture in things’, to be held at the University of Tartu, Estonia, 20-22 October, 2011 — three days about things in culture, cultures in things “and lest we forget, all that stuff in between”.

The call for papers claims that “since the groundbreaking publication of Arjun Appudurai, ed. The Social Life of Things (1986) to the launch of the Journal of Material Culture a decade later, “the material world in its cross-cultural, multi-temporal and interdisciplinary study could never quite be the same again”: objects, artefacts and matter, “even sometimes the immaterial”, have been theorised and contextualised in lots of case studies. And in contrast to the usual jargon of ‘thing agency’, this call for papers takes a more sober position — things are “endowed with agency”, which is an entirely different ‘thing’:

A well known adage in this field of enquiry is that things make people as much people make things. The relationships we develop and share with a tangible arena of artworks, buildings, infra-structures, monuments, relics and everyday objects varies from the remote to the intimate, from the fleeting to the durable, from immediate to mediated, from the passive to the passionate, from the philosophised to the commonsensical. Within the practices of creative processes and their use or non-use of the physical world, things gain meaning and status. They become endowed with agency, symbolism and power. Our journeys through the world of things generate a multitude of emotions: pleasure, attachment, belonging, angst, envy, exclusion, loathing and fear. They also feed into the propagation of on-going myths, narratives and discourses which oscillate between the robust and the ever shifting.

And here are the organisers suggestions for topics, i.e. everything about things is apparently of potential interest:

(i) Dynamics – Changing of meaning, practices, functions and modality in time and space
- displaying / collecting (museums, galleries and institutions);
- archaeological practice / how objects are made meaningful through their use;
- naming and renaming; assembling and dismantling;
- modality, mediation, remediation; (sources of) knowledge of things;
- innovation and technologies;
- biographies of things / life stories;
- recycling, reuse, waste, entropy, heritage.

(ii) Identity – Ways we relate to and use things
- identification / objectification;
- memory (memorials);
- cultural autocommunication;
- symbolic usage of things – heritage, monuments, rituals;
- consumption, consumerism / commodification;
- naming, narrating and silencing (or censoring) things;
- embodiment and things.

(iii) Methodologies – How we study things
- objects and subjects of research;
- material aspects of research / materiality of research;
- disciplinary and interdisciplinary methodologies;
- historiographical approaches;
- what things are – genres and types of things in different disciplines;
- historical epistemologies.

350 words abstract should be sent in by next Wednesday (1 June) to Monika Tasa, More info here.

material studies, news

New assistant professor in medical science communication at Medical Museion

Let me take this opportunity to present another new member of staff — assistant professor Adam Bencard:

I started as assistent professor in science communication here at Medical Museion in November 2010. I have two major tasks: I’m doing research in experimental science communication and I make exhibitions. I’m particularly interested in material objects and the philosophical aspects of materiality and the meaning of artefacts in a science communicatioin context. I have a background in history and philosopy (MA, Roskilde University, 2001) and finished my PhD here at Medical Museion in 2008.

After defending his PhD-thesis ‘History in the Flesh’ in February 2008, Adam worked as a research assistant together with me and Camilla Mordhorst on the concept of ‘presence’ (resulting in, among other things, this article on biomedicine as a challenge to museums). Now he is moving deeper into the philosophical dimensions of material museum objects — those who read this blog may have noticed that Adam is the author of quite a few posts on subjects like ‘object oriented ontology’, ‘the material turn’, ‘existential materialism’, ‘the digital delusion’, etc.

Adam has been main curator of the exhibition The Chemistry of Life: Four Chapters in the History of Metabolic Research that opened in our satellite exhibition area in the main building of the Faculty of Health Sciecnes, and he is now working on yet another exhibition about the humoral vs. chemical body that is planned to open in mid-October.

Adam’s position is financed by a grant through the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research.

material studies

Waking up inside an object

Perhaps the recent surge towards objects and materiality is connected to a deep restructuring of our collective unconsciousness tied to a sense of ‘waking up inside an object’, as philosopher and blogger Timothy Morton writes about here?

Humans no longer live in a “world” or in an “environment,” and certainly not in “nature.” Global warming spells the end of the world, not in an apocalypse but in an abject living-on in the absence of a meaningful lifeworld bounded by a distant horizon. We have realized that the “world” is actually a gigantic object in which we exist like Russian dolls inside a larger Russian doll.

Anyone interested in Morton’s thought on ecophilosophy can read more in the essay Here Comes Everything – The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology. I was struck by the similarity to a quote by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht from an essay entitled Shall We Continue to Write Histories of Literature?, which strikes a similar chord in diagnosing our times:

It is as if, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in the middle of time and in the middle of objects, with a desire to become part of this material world (and perhaps even of its temporality) which experience, for a sheer lack of familiarity, is confusing for us. In other words, we have to learn what it is to be an observer who stands, with his body, in the middle of a material world to be observed.

The ‘we’ in the quote is literary theoreticians and philosophers, but there seems to me to be a deeper resonance at work, evoking something like an early 21st century zeitgeist or some such nebulous notion.

Those interested in the ecological ramifications of new materialisms should attend the Eco-tone workshop in june. Beautiful event poster too:

aesthetics, art and biomed, haptics, material studies, senses, smell, visual studies

Workshop on the sensuous object (smell and touch, ambience, aesthetic, visual thinking, tacit knowledge, sound and seduction), 29-30 September

Our own Lucy Lyons and Anette Stenslund are organising a two-day workshop titled ‘The Sensuous Object’ here at Medical Museion, September 29-30.

‘The Sensuous Object’ is an interdisciplinary, participatory workshop concerned with ways we actually engage with objects and aimed at researchers in all disciplines interested in the materiality of actual artefacts and ways of understanding objects through the senses.

How we experience and understand objects as sensuous objects that have been realized, produced, consumed through and by our senses, and how they impact on us and how we impact on them, are just a few of the expected discussion topics. By inviting participants to choose actual objects and use them as central to their presentations, the aim is to challenge established concepts and reveal new possibilities in our experiencing of and understanding through objects, using sensuous approaches. It will provide opportunity for presenters to test ideas, try out new formats of presentation and discussion, and examine their own research through the sensuous object.

The idea for this workshop began as a way to research objects from Medical Museion’s collections and for the objects themselves to form the basis of further research. Medical Museion is a university museum at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen, with an extensive collection of historical medical objects from the 18th through 20th centuries and with internationally award-winning exhibitions. Its field is the history of health and disease in a cultural perspective, with a focus on the material and iconographic culture of recent biomedicine. Research at Medical Museion is seen as essential to underpinning university teaching strategies for collection and conservation of medical heritage, exhibition making, and other material-based communication practices.

Speakers are invited to present their understanding of an object in terms of their methodological approaches and areas of research. Research areas of confirmed participants include senses of smell and touch, ambience, aesthetic, visual thinking, tacit knowledge, sound, and seduction.

Confirmed speakers:
Laura Gonzalez (Glasgow School of Art)
Ansa Lonstrup (University of Aarhus)
Anette Stenslund (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)
Jan-Eric Olsén (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)
Carsten Friberg (Aarhus School of Architecture)

Postdoc Lucy Lyons ( and PhD student Anette Stenslund (, Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen, 18 Fredericiagade, Copenhagen (

More information:
If you are interested in presenting, please email a 200 word abstract by July 15, 2011. If you would like to participate but do not wish to present, please email a paragraph about your area of research by September 5, 2011.

The Sensuous Object workshop is free and Medical Museion will host lunch on both days and dinner on September 29. Participants will need to arrange and pay for their own travel and accommodation.

Further info from Lucy Lyons,

material studies

Speculations II out now

For those who are interested in new materialist and object-oriented philosophy, the fledgling journal Speculations is a great source for state of the art experimental writing in the speculative realist vein. The second volume has just been released and can be found here. Here is a snippet from the editors introduction, which gives an idea of the kind of writing facing the brave reader:

What Speculations aims at doing, then, is not to represent the dreadnought of a new theoretical position but to open up a window onto the work of thinkers attempting to push farther the limits of accredited knowledge, to take—with each and every volume—a temporary snapshot of the current state of this journey of thought. As editors, the best we can hope is that, like outdated Polaroids, the value of this effort will only be more and more discernible as time goes by.

Those wanting an introduction to speculative realism and object-oriented ontology can find some texts and audio here and here. The open-access published anthology The Speculative Turn – Continental Materialism and Realism gives some more in-depth examples.

curation, displays/exhibits, material studies, news, seminars

Martha Fleming on “Museum as Material, Exhibition as Scholarly Publication” at the Danish Royal Academy of Art, Friday 1 April, 1-3 pm.

Martha Fleming, who was head curator on our award-winning exhibition Split & Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine (2009-2010) will speak at the Danish Royal Academy of Art on Friday 1 April. The title of her talk is “Museum as Material, Exhibition as Scholarly Publication”.

What does it mean to consider an institution to be a kind of ‘material’? What sort of research is it possible for an artist to effect inside a science museum? What does research itself mean in different scholarly contexts, and how does the artist facilitate interdisciplinarity beyond the studio and the gallery? This seminar will be of interest to those who want to know about intellectual and logistical issues of working with non-art museums, those whose conceptual work engages with science practice and history and philosophy of science, and those interested in the work that has come out of the radical aesthetics of 1980s site specific projects. Martha Fleming has made large-scale site specific installations, museum collection interpretation projects, and now works at the Natural History Museum in London. She will be speaking about her work as an artist, as a museum professional and as an historian of science.

The lecture takes place in the Italian Auditorium, 1 Kongens Nytorv, Copenhagen,  at 1 pm.

Some background reading:

  • Studiolo: The Collaborative Projects of Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (Artextes 1997)
  • “Feminisms is Still Our Name: Seven Essays on Historiography and Curatorial Practices”. Editor: Malin Hedlin Hayden and Jessica Sjöholm Skrubbe (Cambridge Scholars 2010)

conferences, history of technology, material studies

What’s actually meant by the “life” and “biography” of new materials?

Historians and curators of medicine might be interested in the conference ‘The Life of New Materials’ organised by the Hagley Museum and Library, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science ,17 - 18 November 2011.

The conference will explore “the lives of the new materials that have made possible many of the technological advances of our age. Whether based on plant, metal, chemical, or nano technologies, the development, use, re-use, and disposal of new materials is an embedded feature of our industrial society”. The organisers wish to understand “the relationships from which new materials emerge, and which they in turn often refashion”, and they are especially interested in proposals that focus on

The life history of a new material: its biography, use cycle, place in supply chains, or features as material culture. We encourage papers to address the reasons and methods for development of a new material: its design, manufacture, testing, and subsequent incorporation into final products or already existing technologies; its reuse or disposal after completion of its primary purpose; and its impact –anticipated or not–on subsequent innovations. Exploration of the creation of new materials should situate those scientific and technological processes within the commercial, institutional, or social contexts that lead to their development.

It’s a great topic for historical and museological investigations. My only caveat is the peculiar use of the terms ‘life’, ‘life history’ and ‘biography’ in this context. What do they actually mean when they suggest that, say, plastic has a ‘life’ and that it can be written as a ‘biography’? What is meant by a ‘biography’ of polystyrene? What does this metaphorical use of the notion of ‘life’ and ‘biography’ add to our understanding?

In my view absolutely nothing. Such unnecessary metaphors only confound the issues at stake. I know it has become fashionable to speak about the ‘life’ and ‘biography’ of inanimate things, but when the metaphors are extended from things to materials in general, fashion becomes folly.

Anyway, deadline for proposals is 1 April.  Travel support will be available for those presenting at the conference. More details here.

material studies

Studies in disposable culture

A fairly new (from August 2010) blog called Discard Studies explores the contemporary throw-away culture.

One of their recent hot topics is plastic pollution of the oceans. All oceans, especially the North Pacific, contains millions of tons of discarded man-made plastic items. They are largely non-biodegradable, which means they will only disappear slowly through physical wear — which can take many decades for a plastic bottle.

I wonder how much of this plastic pollution consists of disposable medical plastics (syringes, gloves, desinfectant wipes, urinary swabs, stool caps, drainage bags, ostomy bags — you name it)?

(For an earlier post on disposable plastics in biomedicine, see here.)

collections, displays/exhibits, material studies, university museums

The order of tangible things at Harvard

Has any readers of this blog seen Harvard University’s exhibit ‘Tangible Things’, which “brings together 200 objects from the back rooms and Z-closets of Harvard’s museums and libraries”?

The idea behind the exhibit is the contemporary-traditional critical view of the ordering and categorisation of things:

Questioning the modern Western intellectual categories that distinguish art from artifact, specimen from tool, and the historical from the anthropological, Tangible Things brings together materials from Harvard’s museum and archival collections. Beginning in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, the exhibition introduces visitors to established ways of organizing things and challenges them to classify an assortment of objects according to these conventions. Where in the university do items like John Singer Sargent’s palette or the beads and dress of a Camp Fire Girl belong? Why? Armed with these questions, visitors are invited to discover the many guest objects carefully inserted into exhibitions of Harvard’s public museums.

(are we supposed to read Foucault between the lines here?)

The exhibit, which opened in late January and is running until 29 May, is organized by Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments and forms the basis for the university’s general education course ‘Tangible Things: Harvard Collections in World History’.

More here and here. If someone would like to write a review, please let us know.

collections, history of medicine, material studies, museum studies

The museographer and the object

In the process of selecting objects for a new exhibition, I (re)discovered this room:

It is located beneath the roof of the museum, and contains, as the picture shows, literally hundreds of small glass vials with various chemical labels. Most are empty, but a few still has the original contents.

Aside from being a treasure chest for our exhibition, the room also reminded me of the degree to which being in a house filled with things makes me think differently about the history of medicine. This might not exactly be a groundbreaking insight, but is bears repeating often. The material environment we occupy is foundational for our cognitive states. This sentiment is expressed in the following quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss, which, although it is aimed at ethnographical collectors, seem to me to ring true for medical historical collections as well:

The museographer enters into close contact with the objects: a spirit of humility is inculcated in him by all the small tasks (unpacking, cleaning, maintenance, etc.) he has to perform. He develops a keen sense of the concrete through the classification, identification, and analysis of the objects in the various collections. He establishes indirect contact with the native environment by means of tools and comes to know this environment and the ways in which to handle it correctly: Texture, form, and in many cases, smell, repeatedly experienced, make him instinctively familiar with distant forms of life and activities. Finally, he acquires for the various externalizations of human genius that respect which cannot fail to be inspired in him by the constant appeals to his taste, intellect, and knowledge made by apparently insignificant objects.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The place of anthropology in the social sciences and the problems raised in teaching it,” in Jacobson and Schoepf (eds.): Structural Anthropology, 1963.

Hopefully, being in the room and selecting vials for the exhibition will nudge us curators towards an exhibition that tries to establish a sense of how foundational the relationship between the individual and the physical environment is. Showing how what we inhabit is what we get, so to speak.

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