Author Archive


More on best practice in organising academic meetings

Apropos the forthcoming Birkbeck workshop on pain without lesions I referred to a couple of days ago — the way the workshop is organised is quite interesting, because it reminds me of the discussion we had on this blog a few months ago about promoting best practice in organising academic meetings.

The organisers of the planned pain workshop at Birkbeck seem to have learned from their medical humanities colleagues at King’s — speakers are required to provide drafts of their papers in advance and they will not have traditional paper panels; instead speakers will be asked to present as “a conversant in tandem with another speaker on a unified theme, after which a chaired group discussion will proceed for the majority of the time allotted for the session”.

Conference and workshop formats are up for serious revisions now that we are used to social media. Sooner or later physical meeting formats will have to learn from the experiences on the web. It seems to be a long way to go, however. Spread the word and let us here at Biomedicine on Display know if you have found other ways of doing it.

displays/exhibits, museum studies

The jizz of museum exhibitions

According to the Urban Dictionary, jizz is a slang word for the male semen. But bird-watchers sometimes use it in another meaning, namely to describe the overall ‘at-a-glance’ appearance of a bird that makes it possible to identify it in the field in a split-second. (There’s probably no connection between the two meanings of the word jizz :-).

For birders, jizz is a combination of features like the bird’s voice, its posture, the way it flies or moves, the habitat where it’s found, etc. The ‘alchemy’ of jizz is that experienced bird-watchers can usually make fairly reliable rapid identifications of birds that way. It’s not an analytical description of all its fetures, but rather a kind of tacit knowledge identification, often down to species level.

It struck me that museum exhibitions too can be described and evaluated in terms of jizz. You don’t really need to read the wall-texts or the labels, or watch the displayed objects closely, in order to get an overall understanding of what’s going on. You can walk through the rooms rapidly in a few minutes, throw a few glances at a dome of the objects that catch your immediate attention, read the headlines of a couple of wall posters, and watch the other visitors — their gestures, the way they speak and behave.

Of course, this ‘at-a-glance’ evaluation of an exhibition is not a substitute for the close reading of the texts and the careful inspection of the objects and images on display. But it nevertheless reminds me about the fact that even the most painstakingly curated and research-based exhibition — with meticulously proof-read texts and exquisitely chosen and cleaned artefacts — is a missed opportunity if it doesn’t have that overall quality which makes easily definable and understandable as a whole.

So even though the details are good, the overall impression may be one of confusion. The term jizz is a reminder of the importance for curators to secure the impression of the whole. In a glance, what is the exhibition actually about? You shall not have to read anything in the catalogue or more than a few wall-texts or seen moe than a couple of artefacts to understand it.

anatomy, collections, conferences

Anatomical collections as part of the cultural heritage

As you can see if you scroll down a bit (or search for ‘anatomy’/’anatomical’ in the search field), we have written quite a lot about different activities, both in Europe and elsewhere, around the topic of anatomical collections.

The next initiative on this central topic for medical museums is a conference titled ‘Cultures of Anatomical Collections’ to be held at Universiteit te Leiden, 15-18 February 2012. The aim is to explore anatomical preparations and collections and anatomical models (e.g., moulages) as parts of the cultural heritage — asking questions like

  • What do the technical details of anatomical preparations tell us about the ideas of their makers?
  • How do ideas on beauty and perfection shape anatomical preparations?
  • How have anatomical preparations been handled and used for teaching purposes?
  • How have the interest of non-medical audiences shaped anatomical preparations and collections?
  • How have particular anatomical collections been built up?
  • How have curatorial decisions affected the build-up of collections
  • How does the housing of a collection affect its outlook and popularity?

Deadline for proposals is already next week — 16 September!!  The organiser, Rina Knoeff ( is prepared to extend the deadline with a week or so if you let her know if they intend to submit an abstract. For more general info, see here.

science communication studies, social web media

Configuring future scholarly communication — getting into the heads of current undergraduates and graduate students

A few weeks ago, Paul Ginsparg, founder of the immensely popular (among physicists) preprint publication archive ArXiv, reflected on the future of scholarly communication (Nature vol. 476, pp. 145-147, 11 August 2011).

He wrote what many of my generation colleagues in the medical faculty consider outlandish, but which is self-evident to everyone who has some experience in online communication — namely that configuring the next generation scholarly communication infrastructure “requires getting into the heads of current undergraduates and graduate students”.

Because, as he noted, the life experience of todays students “is of immediate online availability and global search engines, and they arrive imbued with the social-network mentality of sharing links, photos, videos and status updates”.

In other words, if you’ve been brought up with Facebook, you will expect scholarly communication to work the same way. And to add to Ginsparg’s reflection: you will probably assume that scholarly and public communication can be done on the same platform.

conferences, history of medicine, museum studies

16th biannual conference of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences (EAMHMS) will be held in Berlin, 13-15 September 2012

The 16th biannual conference of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences (EAMHMS) will be held in Berlin, 13-15 September 2012 on the theme “Hidden Stories: What do medical objects tell and how can we make them speak?”.

Here’s the call for papers from Thomas Schnalke, director of the Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum:

Dear friends and colleagues!

After a highly inspiring conference of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences (EAMHMS) in Copenhagen in 2010, it is my pleasure to invite the members of the association, as well as interested scholars and curators from the community of medical history collections and museums to join in and actively participate in the next meeting of the organisation. The conference will be held at the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité from 13 to 15 September 2012. As we all profited from the vibrant culture of debate and discussion, Thomas Söderqvist and his team had generated in Copenhagen, we would like to keep the idea of pre-circulating extended abstracts plus a short oral presentation of the core ideas in the conference (10 mins!). Beamer and laptop will be provided for Power-Point-Presentations. The language for abstracts, talks, and discussions will be English.

While the Copenhagen conference opened and fuelled the still ongoing debate on how to collect and present medical and medical history issues in times when objects tend to fade into the invisible and intangible cosmos of the virtual and nano biology, we want to address the attention back to the physical things we have and deal with: the objects in our collections, depots, and museums. These items are a mystery. They present strangely curved and shiny surfaces. They perform in all different shapes, materials and colours. And they are quiet. They usually don’t talk. But, and this is our chance and challenge, ideas and concepts had been inscribed into their physical make. Medical theories and practices as intricately mixed epistemic processes had found their specific materialisations in the defined structures of such things. Over the times of their preservation they might have lost their primary functions, won secondary ones, but more crucial: They have gained meaning for which we can seek, if we decide to take these objects as serious sources for our work as historians of medicine, science, technology, culture, art, humanities etc.

What we have to do is asking for the “text” in the object, i.e. sometimes a real text in, with or around the thing (may this be only a code, a chiffre or a number), or a “subtext” somehow embedded in the shaped materials implicitly or connected with the object but detached from it and stored elsewhere, as in added files, fascicles or publications. With the clues and information we get from there we can move on to reconstruct the object’s context. Only within this context, the object begins to speak. We can tell its story and biography.

The conference will therefore focus on objects, asking always for the hidden “texts” and “subtexts” on two different paths—a more practical and a conceptual one:

1. Hidden stories. What do medical objects tell?
We ask for papers that really focus on one medical object from your collections, depots or show rooms. Please slip into the role of a Sherlock Holmes to solve the case of this very object, i.e. by observing and describing the thing accurately, looking for clues (“texts”) and additional information (“subtexts”) and presenting your spiral analysis and interpretation around the item, thus telling us the full object story. You may chose any medical object of your personal interest—an ancient mask, medieval blood letting device, a scientific kymograph or a modern gene sequencer—from any time, culture and geographical zone. The only aim we ask you to keep in mind is to show us how far you get with your object-centred research, how far you can draw your interpretation surely consulting secondary archival material and relevant literature. Please also reflect on the limits of this approach.

2. How can we make our objects speak?
Here we ask for papers that reflect on a more conceptual base on how we can deal with objects in three different arenas:
– Research: Medical objects and collections form a unique source in performing research on various topics in the history of medicine and the sciences. What prerequisites and infrastructures do we need to study our objects effectively? What are innovative modes and approaches in a material culture of performing research on, with and around our objects? What forms of networking and funding do we need to support an object-centred research? What are adequate and new formats of publication for our object studies?
– Teaching: Medical Objects and collections offer a unique chance for visual and haptic forms of teaching in many fields. Can you share your thoughts and experiences on this field with us? What are the features, values, and potentials of an object-based teaching? What are possible limits here (delicacy of objects, climate, access, etc.)? What formats of object-based teaching have been tried out (best practice) or ought to be developed further towards a better training in the medical (historical) fields? What links of object-based teaching to research and public outreach have been built up and tried out with what results?
– Presenting: Medical Objects and collections form the core items for our exhibits. What do we want to achieve with our object presentations? What is the very nature, what are the features of exhibitions in our fields? Whom do we want to reach? What are good and innovative formats to make our objects speak and perform for a wider public in our showrooms? What connections with the arenas of research and teaching are possible and sensible? What is the status of an object-based thematic exhibition in our own eyes, in the minds of our external audiences, including the general public and the scientific community?

We ask you to choose a topic from the above-mentioned issues and send your abstract (maximum 700 characters) with a title, your name, the name of your institution (if you are attached to any) and your contact data (preferably e-mail address) until 31 October 2011 to A programme committee will select from the abstracts to compose a hopefully inspiring programme. If your contribution was chosen, you will be asked to work out and hand in an extended abstract (2 to 5 pages) until 15 May 2012. All papers will be put together in one pdf-file and sent out to all participants in time before the conference starts in Berlin on 13 September 2011. We will ask the participants to have read the papers, so that a short presentation (10 mins!) will be enough to focus on the core arguments.

Please help us to put together an inspiring conference. See you all in Berlin 2012.

Best wishes

Thomas Schnalke

conferences, displays/exhibits, history of medicine

Can you display pain without lesion?

It’s notoriously difficult to display invisibles in medical exhibitions. And what’s more invisible than pain? When you break a leg, the lesion is visible, but the pain is not. A mostly subjective sensation, chronic pain has few, if any, visible physical correlates. How do you display headache?

I came to think about this when I heard about the Birkbeck Pain Project, which invites contributions to a workshop organised by Daniel S. Goldberg, titled “The History of Pain Without Lesion in the Mid-to-Late 19th Century West”. The workshop will deal with the social, cultural, and medical status of what we might now refer to as chronic pain sufferers, including labels and complaints, like neuralgia, neurasthenia, hysteria, railway spine, spinal irritation, spinal concussion, headache, dysmenorrhea, and pain without lesion.

Read more here. If you consider attending, send up to 450 words submissions + cv to, not later than 30 November, or contact the organiser directly,

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.

abstracts, aesthetics, art and science, conferences, science communication studies

Mundane design vs. fine sci-art as two realms of aesthetic practice in science communication

Here’s my abstract for a panel on the role of the humanities in science communication that Joan Leach in the Science Communication programme, U Queensland, is putting together for the PCST-12 meeting in Florence next spring:

Mundane Design vs. Fine Sci-Art: Two Realms of Aesthetic Practice in Science Communication
Sci-art has become an increasingly important dimension of science communication through printed media, museums, science centers and the web. Ranging from beautiful images on scientific journal covers to tissue-engineered wet-art installations, sci-art has become a recognised subgenre of the contemporary fine arts; it has entered art schools and caught the interest of gallery owners and art reviewers. It has also drawn the attention of major funding agencies, like the Wellcome Trust, as a means for strengthening public engagement with science. However, the popularity of fine sci-art risks eclipsing another, and perhaps even more important, realm of aesthetic practice in science and science communication, viz., mundane design (everyday aesthetics). In this presentation, I shall reclaim everyday aesthetics and the sensory qualities of research as a central aspect of science and, as a consequence, of science communication.

The full title of the proposed panel is ‘The Role of Humanities in Science Communication: Axiology, Epistemology, Aesthetics’, which connects nicely to the theme of the conference: ‘quality, honesty and beauty in science and technology communication’. It’s a great theme, very anti-mainstream-STS’ish! Besides me and Joan, Steve Fuller (Warwick) and Alice Bell (Imperial) are taking part. But, you never know if the programme committee likes this kind of approach or not. Let’s see. That said, the deadline for proposals is 30 September, and the final programme will be announced in January 2012.

university museums

What’s the role of academic museums in today’s Europe?

There’s been quite a lot of noise about European university museums in the last couple of years. A lot of people are thinking about why and how the academic heritage should be collected, preserved and exhibited (to the right is one of the, our own Medical Museion in Copenhagen).

Now the University of Tartu History Museum (Estonia) will use its 35th anniversary celebration as an opportunity to throw a conference on 5-6 December, where the role of academic museums in today’s Europe will be discussed: “Who needs them and why, and how should academic heritage be exhibited?”

Most European universities possess rather impressive scientific collections – herbaria, minerals, anatomical preparations, instruments, etc. The traditional and initial role of these collections – to support studies and research – is decreasing in the virtual era. This has forced museums to look for new ways to use these collections, mainly to popularise science and introduce the history of universities. However, these collections are often problems for universities, as they take up a lot of room and need maintenance, which universities cannot afford. Many universities have tried to get rid of their collections, some have even managed to take or buy them back. Stocktaking of collections has been used to get rid of spoilt items.

Developing a more attractive exhibition strategy is one of the biggest challenges of museums dealing with academic heritage. They immediately face a number of questions when trying to approach this. Do we exhibit entire collections or just samples? How much will we use modern technical aids? Who are the most important target groups of these museums? How can we communicate the scientific ideas that are hundreds of years old in a manner that is understandable? Creating associations with modern times helps to understand, but it also carries the threat that we project past ideas that didn’t actually exist. How can we connect the work of science historians with the museum?

The role of museums that deal with the history of science and education and their meaning in society also depends on the broader cultural policy. How do the various forms of ownership affect the use and preservation of academic heritage? Would it be better for universities to own their museums or to transfer them to the state, local government, a foundation or other private owners with all their assets, and what would each of these options entail? How can the contribution of university museums to the development of modern society be increased?

The research director of the museum, cultural historian Lea Leppik, who organises the conference, is looking for interesting 25 min-presentations. Send 300 word abstracts to her ( before 1 October. There is no participation fee, but you’ll have to pay for your travel and accommodation in Tartu. The working languages of the conference are Estonian (!) and English.

collections, human remains, university museums

European anatomical collections network initiative

Great initiative! Elena Corradini at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy) and Marek Bukowski at the Museum of the Medical University of Gdansk (Poland) are proposing a European Anatomical Collections Network.

Elena and Marek’s idea is to launch a joint European program for the preservation, handling, and availability of
anatomical collection based on contemporary best practice in the field (the image to the right is from one of our temporary anatomical exhibitions in 2008):

They are going to present the project at the UMAC (University Museums and Collections) meeting in Lisbon in September, but as a starter they would like curators of anatomical collection around Europe to respond to a survey, with questions like:

Type of collection (anatomical and/or pathological and/or curiosity collection); date of foundation; founder’s name and collection providers and managers throughout history; primary venues (separate cabinet in University, palace or court, part of anatomical theater, etc.); researchers connected with collection; famous objects; description of kinds of objects; conservation strategy; availability, etc.

You can respond to the survey via these two links: and

They would also like some feedback on what they think are the most important features of anatomical museums and collections, including:

  • having an Anatomical Theatre for displaying anatomical performances.
  • having a large variety of anatomical specimens.
  • having the possibility of exhibiting historical anatomical specimens.
  • having the display of human remains as an explicit exhibition strategy.
  • focusing on the sense of wonder and fascination with the beauty, mystery and complexity of the body.
  • drawing on visitors’ motivation for visiting the museum and their expectations of the museum.
  • being intersted in the reciprocal relation between audiences and content (what is on show?) of anatomical collections.
  • a focus on conservation problems.
  • selcting the right kind of professionals for anatomical museums.

Send your views on these priorities to and

(Unfortunately, I cannot attend the UMAC meeting in Lisbon; hope you will all have some good days in the Portuguese late summer heat).

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