Author Archive

collections, history of medicine

Speaking of uncollectables …

… I just found a blogpost titled: Coffee, Sex, and Other Weird Ways to Not Get Sick. It lists seven weird ways for helping your immune system:

1. Kiss (and while you’re at it, have Sex)!
2. Listen to music.
3. Walk Really Fast, But Don’t Run!
4. Don’t Blow Your Nose.
5. Get Hot!
6. Avoid the Desert (or any hot and dry climate).
7. Drink Coffee!

Even if this list of great advices may seem a bit, well … unconventional, it reminded me of the many everyday health practices people perform that never become displayed in medical museums. These practices are (for good reasons) not institutionalized, but are nevertheless integral parts of the lives of thousands of people in the Western world.

From a museum point of view, it is not exactly easy to collect such aspects of public health culture. Has anyone done that (yet)?

acquisition, biotech, general, history of science, medical technology, pharma industry, recent biomed

Lab toys on display, please!

Laboratory equipment for rats or mice have begun to fascinate me more and more. Not in the way the rat guillotine was fascinating, but more in the way of how lab equipment can show so many things about biomedical practices, contexts and knowledge production.

The picture above is from an article in the October issue of The Scientist, which Thomas has referred me to, called ‘Lab Toys – How does cage enrichment affect rodents?’. It is a really interesting article (as he knew I would think) about, well, lab toys – and their consequences for lab practices.

For instance the article illustrates one of the aspects about the use of laboratory animals that you seldom think about: the everyday life in the lab where humans and animals interact. Rats, for example, are not only instrumentalized in an experimental setting but must also, like any other domesticated animals, be cared for and nurtured. And offered toys. As the article describes there is a growing interest and market for this special kind of lab equipment, combined with a growing concern about animal welfare both in public as well as in a biomedical research context.

Another often overlooked aspect (seen from the humanities, at least) about biomedical laboratories that the article shows, is the amount of creativity involved, not only in coming up with new experimental setups, but also in designing facilities for animals. Innovative lab workers apparently do a lot for the well being and the shaping of lab animals’ environment using simple things like cardboard or shreded paper.

The article also had some more critical points about lab toys.

In the 1940s, the famed neuropsychologist Donald Hebb decided to bring home one of his experimental rats, letting it run free in his house and play with his children. The increased variety in the animal’s environment compared to a small bare cage, he found, improved its ability to learn. Psychologists since then have examined the effect of environment on cognitive processes such as learning, fear and addiction.

This and other examples are given to illustrate the fact that the living conditions of lab animals — from materials used for nesting, gnawing or hiding, to temperature and access to other animals — affect their behaviour, stress level, immune system and physical condition. Wheels, gnawsticks and hiding places can therefore in a more or less subtle way influence the results of the experiments the animals are used in.

So if you want to know if your lab’s results are comparable to the results from other labs you have to take these aspects into account and maybe even standardize your lab animals’ living conditions (just like the standardized units, setups or even what you could call standardized mouse like the oncomouse that are used today). As the Dutch researcher Vera Baumans says in the ‘Lab Toys’ article: “The effects of different types of enrichment are often strain-specific and gender-specific, and are even sensitive to the statistical method used in any given study”.

Allthough this is only a relatively small part of the field of modern biomedicine, the living conditions of laboratory animals can, in this way, reflect many of the central aspects constituting the field. One important aspect shown in the lab toys discussion is the way medical sciences attempt to manage complexity by creating controlled lab settings.

But it also becomes clear that the laboratory is a setting for animal and human interaction beyond a simple ‘exploiting the animals’. It is a setting where you cannot separate lab practices from their political and social context — in this case in the form of regulations and concerns for animal welfare. And as the article ends by pointing out, the investment in animal welfare made by Pharma companies like Novo Nordisk can also have a positive effect on the image of these companies as moral entities.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any laboratory toys in the collections of Medical Museion, but they would definitely be items worthy of a museum exhibit. Imagine a rat toy and a rat guillotine next to each other to illustrate some of the paradoxes and themes in recent biomedicine. More lab toys on display, please!

blogging, conferences, general, public outreach, science communication studies, social networking, web resources

Science Online London 2009 – Second Life, online outreach, blogging and the future of science communication.

A few weeks ago I attended the Science Online London 2009 conference – a conference on science communication in the new era of “the Web”. As they wrote on the conference homepage:

The Web is rapidly changing the communication, practice and culture of science. Science online London 2009 will explore the latest trends in science online. How is the Web affecting the work of researchers, science communicators, journalists, librarians, educators, students? What can you do to make the best use of the growing number of online tools?

The conference itself made good use of the online tools. As an apropriate feature it was possible to attend the conference online via Second Life (SL) instead of on site (in ‘First’ or ‘Real’ life). So I attended the conference while sitting in my living room in an appartment in Denmark, joined in virtual reality by people from various parts of the globe and quite different time zones. Blogger Dave Munger even gave his presentation through Second Life, as the screen picture below is an image of (notice also my freshly created SL avatar sitting in the lefthand corner):

The Second Life feature in itself made the conference interesting, so let me start there and come back to the actual contents of the conference later. By doing this, I am also letting you experience one of the unfortunate aspects of doing conferences in Second Life: the technology is not only a media but also distracts you from concentrating on what is going on. Or in one case when there was only a bad audio available from a breakout session, it made attending the conference difficult. Then again, there were other benefits.

One major benefit (and major distraction too) was the ongoing commentary and debate going on in Second Life while speakers were presenting. The presentations were communicated by video and audio streaming (see programme and streams here), while powerpoint slides were visible on the virtual screen you see to the left in the picture above. Ad to this a chat browser with ongoing commentaries and an ability to rotate your view around the virtual amphitheatre that set the stage for the SL conference – to view the often very elaborate, fancily dressed avatars, whom you were chatting with – and you get an idea of the set up. Commentaries varied from quick resumes of what was just said to parallel discussions or sharing of links and jokes (like this one) – kind of like handing notes to each other during a lecture. This was really helpful for a newbie like me, and it also gave a feeling of inclusion and made a great opening for networking, since everyone spoke to everyone in the chat.

From a museum-outreach perspective the chatting also gave me a couple of unexpected examples of what SL can do. Chek for instance the HMS Beagle (Darwin) exhibit in SL: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Elucian%20Omega/175/103/23. Second Life may be a relatively small online community and you may need a lot of computer skills to pull something like the HMS Beagle off, but – for me at least – it opens up for a whole new perspective on the use of online tools in a museum context.

As for the actual content of the conference there were several interesting presentations: aforementioned blogger Dave Munger, science editor of The Times Mark Henderson and ‘Genetic Future’ blogger Daniel MacArthur talked about ‘Blogging for impact’, how to use the blog as a tool to achieve fame, present journalists with a good science communication opportunity, and further/damage your academic career. Basically saying that blogging is the future of science communication and of becoming a popular academic, and that comments are usually of a much higher quality in blogs than on the mainline web (please feel free to prove them right ;-)). But also that not all universities recognize this (yet), and that being publicly critical of collegues on your blog may damage your career. There was a breakout session on institutional barriers afterwards, but I’ll skip that here. See here for videos of most of the conference or here for a blog that has links to all the blogposts on the conference and its different sessions.

Another interesting presentation was on managing online scientific communities – both on the technical issues involved (tech support, spam, legal aspects etc.) and on building communities on the Web. Taking the online scientific community ResearchGate as a good example, the presentation stressed the need for learning from the community what their needs are, continously developing the online resources (search engines, interface, applications), and engaging visitors. 30-35% of ResearchGate’s registered users are active ca. once a month (doing literature search, asking a question etc.), so it seems they have found a productice way of making an online community. Knowing what your audience is interested in and would want to know about or be able to do seems to be the way of creating an actual community. Interaction and involvement are important.

The conference ended with a presentation by science fiction writer and former research scientist John Gilbey under the headline: Far Out: Speculations on Science Communication 50 years From Now. Gilbey not so much outlined a future of science communication as he asked a lot of questions relating to the current way things are heading. The questions also (kind of) summarized the underlying questions in, and pointed to the context of, the conference’s different presentations. While thinking on a concept like New Museology, these questions made a lot of sense to me, so let me just end this post with some of Gilbey’s questions:

In a changed future who will our [insert scientist/blogger/profession etc.] sponsors be? How free will we be? Will we be encouraged to deal with public by employers? Would you blog against ‘evil’ organisations anonymously?

Will virtual reality be an obiqutiuos part of science communication in the near future? Scientists’ location becoming irrelevant?

Would a future environmental event spur more interst in science? Or would society crash totally following an unrecoverable internet failure? How many would loose information they couldn’t recover?

Most of the persons in SL answered in the positive to these questions. Would you?

art and biomed, movies, public outreach

Zombies and neurobiology

Sometimes it’s amazing what turns up, when you use the web. I’m currently doing some research for a Ph.D-application concerning neuroscience (among other things) and stumbled upon this online article: A Harvard Psychiatrist Explains Zombie Neurobiology

The article does what it promises – it discusses zombie neurobiology and refers to a Havard psychiatrist who appearently is also a zombie movie fan and therefore has made zombies his specialty: “the world’s leading authority on the neurobiology of the living dead”.

Aside from being one of the many examples of the pervasive prescence of neuroscience in all aspect of western culture, this hybrid case of science and fiction also could (with only a little intellectualizing) point to the discussion about the boarders of science communication and leisure economy. Experience zombiemovies and learn about neurobiology at the same time! How’s that for new ideas on public outreach. Neurobiology sure has its moments.

blogging, conferences, general, museum and knowledge politics, museum studies, public outreach, science communication studies

Conference: Museum communication in the digital culture

While we’re at it, here is another interesting conference coming up. (See here or here for recent posts about interesting conferences.)

The Danish research center DREAM (Danish Research Centre on Education and Advanced Media Materials) have organized a one-day conference at Roskilde University, September 22nd 2009. At the conference there will be presentations about a.o. the (maybe not so) new possibilities of using digital communication in a museum context; critical discussions about museums as learning institutions; and discussions about the relationship between the public and museum institutions in a new museological context.
These are themes which are discussed regularly at Medical Museion – and Museion will be represented among the conference participants. Some presentations will be held in English and some in danish according to the conference programme. Here is a rough translation of the danish conference teaser:

The digital culture brings forth new opportunities to strengthen communication to more, potentially interested users. But external communication is not only good communication of an academic subject. Communication influences, changes and distorts the subject. More, and more diverse, communication changes the relationship between communicator, message and recepient at the same time as boundaries between leisure centers, knowledge centers and museums are erased.
DREAM invites you to discuss these changes. What happens with the changed forms of communication? Who is communicating with whom? What is changed? And who is changed? What does the new forms of communication mean for the self understanding and development of museums and science centers?

acquisition, collections, curation, medical technology

Rat guillotines and ‘home made’ laboratory equipment

A while ago one of my friends went to Sydney to visit a friend who works in behavioral neuroscience. My friend was shown around in her friend’s laboratory and when she returned to Denmark one of the things she mentioned (with more fascination and dread than any other item from the lab) was the so called rat guillotine, she’d seen. According to her friend the guillotine was one of the most humane instruments for destroying the rats after the experiments.

The concept of a rat guillotine is likely to produce images of a tall narrow machine with a sharp triangular blade rushing towards an outstretched (rat) neck. A search in Medical Museion’s collections reveals another image, though:


The guillotine in the picture was originally from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen. It was constructed ca. 1970 by the mechanic Henning Emmè (†1990).

The guillotine is a fascinating (if somewhat morbid) piece of laboratory equipment that can at the same time hint at the more gory parts of science and the relation between scientist and animals and also be used as an example of ‘home made’ laboratory equipment. As assistant engineer Kristian Karlsen told us, when Museion was at the annual ’clean-up-day’ at Panum, biomedical researchers in past and present have often had to construct their own equipment in collaboration with mechanics and engineers. He mentioned that at some point in the recent history of biomedicine at Panum there was one equipment-building workshop for every 4-5 laboratories. In other words, ‘home made’ laboratory equipment is and has been a more important and frequently used part of biomedical research than most people would think.

The ’clean-up-day’ at Panum resulted in a few of such items collected by Museion. For example this little machine:


It is still an ongoing process to collect all the information we need about the item and its use. It came from one of the Department of Biomedical Sciences’ storage rooms and has most likely been used to slice tissue up for experiments (notice the slightly rusty razor blade over the white block). Like the guillotine this item has the ability to evoke curiosity in the beholder. It is clearly a unique ‘home made’ item. But how did it work? Who designed it?  And how exactly has it been part of biomedical research practice at Panum?

When more information becomes available, another blog post will follow up on this one. We’re right now in the process of communicating Musion’s collections online at the museum’s Danish blog, but will also post some of them here when it seems appropriate – new strange and interesting items may see a virtual light of day, so to speak, during the next couple of months.

general, Museion concept, recent biomed

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general, Museion concept, recent biomed

Hvad betyder kulturhistorie?

Det tager ikke lang tid at finde ud af, at et af Museions ’catchwords’ er kulturhistorie. F.eks. hørte jeg første uge udtalt, at indsamlingerne foregår med et kulturhistorisk sigte og ikke et f.eks. naturvidenskabeligt. Kulturhistorie er altså vigtigt. Men hvad betyder det egentlig? Continue Reading »

Museion concept, recent biomed

Frivilligt arbejde

Hej alle sammen
Nu har jeg været her et par uger og er ved at komme i gang med min praktikopgave og ved at få en fornemmelse af stedet. Men jeg vil gerne lære andre at kende end Hanne og Thomas (om end de er flinke) – og jeg vil gerne have indblik i, hvad I andre går og laver, og hvordan I forholder jer til MedMus projektet.
Derfor: Hvis der er noget, jeg kan hjælpe med, så sig endelig til. Jeg læser gerne korrektur, er hurtig til at sætte mig ind i nye emner og sidder gerne med til møder – kan kort sagt fungere som et par friske øjne, hvis I har brug for det.

/Morten Bülow

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