Archive for the 'public outreach' Category

collections, displays/exhibits, history of medicine, human remains, museum ethics, museum studies, public outreach, teaching, university museums

Anatomical and pathological collections in contemporary medical education

We have just submitted an application for a major new gallery based on our anatomical and pathological specimen collections — and the in-house discussions are already becoming vigorous.

How to find conceptually interesting ways to display cancer tumours, conjoined twins, and twisted torsos? What’s the balance between spectacular engagement and ethical concerns? How to make the historical collections of the macroanatomical past work together with the microanatomical and molecular collections of present biobanks?

During the next couple of years we will embark on a more detailed planning process — we will engage medical experts, medical historians/sociologists, museum colleagues and the general public in a discussion about the best ways to build such a gallery and how to combine it with other activities in the museum.

One of the interesting perspectives is to what extent such a gallery might still play an educational role. Browsing the literature for inspiration, I fell upon an article in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education suggesting that despite the current emphasis on digital learning, some medical schools and many of their students still find collections of anatomical and pathological specimens useful for educational purposes.

As the authors remind us, anatomy and pathology collections (‘medical museums’) were central to medical education in the 19th and throughout most of the 20th century. But the role of such collections have diminished dramatically in recent years, mainly, they suggest, because of the use of information technology and web-based learning.

Accordingly, many medical schools have abandoned their museums and/or given away the collections. A few schools still think their museum collections are important, however, and some have even updated them and equipped them with new technological gadgets to support the interaction with the objects.

Anatomical MuseumThe authors point to the Anatomical Museum of Leiden University Medical Center and the Medical Museum of Kawasaki Medical School in Kurashiki as two prime examples of such upgraded museums.

The main use of the Leiden museum, says its website, is for medical and biomedical instruction, but high school biology teachers and pupils can visit it too. The showcases above contain over 800 medical specimens and models and were set up in 2007.

The Kawasaki museum (below) is huge, with about 2700 specimens on display on three floors in a specially designated building that focuses on contemporary medicine:


I guess most Western medical gallery curators would consider such displays terribly out of fashion. But although both these museums are a far cry away from what we here at Medical Museion will probably think of when we design the new gallery, we shouldn’t forget that such displays may work well for educational purposes. Actually, surveys at the Leiden museum suggest that virtually all students found audio-guided museum tours in the collection “useful for learning” and that a majority (87%) of the students found guided tours in them “to be clinically relevant”. (On the other hand, 69% felt that “museum visits should be optional rather than compulsory within the medical training curriculum”; quotes from the abstract).

I’m definitely not a fan of visitor survey ‘research’, nor do I think the main function of a medical museum today is educational — but it’s nevertheless a perspective worth keeping in mind when we start discussing the design of the new gallery in more detail.

conferences, public outreach, science communication studies, social web media

Why control has to die so that information may live

“Why Proteins Have to Die So That We May Live”. This was the title of the talk given by Nobel Laureate Dr. Aaron Ciechanover at the international symposium entitled Protein Chemistry: Applications to Combat Diseases held at the University of Copenhagen earlier this week. Three days packed with talks from the world’s leading protein chemists and researchers. The focus of the conference was the life of proteins from their synthesis to their degradation. This was highlighted by talks from three Nobel Prize laureates: Ada Yonath, Avram Hersko and Aaron Chiechanover – each of whom have contributed immensely to our understanding of these processes.

The symposium featured talks from invited speakers only, and as such the quality of the talks reflected this in being very high. The papers presented were mostly already published, but some did include unpublished data (although I’m sure these were already on their way to being submitted). Each speaker was given twenty-five minutes to present their papers, and unfortunately due to a complete lack of control by the chairs, this was exceeded over and over again. Annoying. Not only are breaks important when you sit through three hours of talks, they are also where a lot of the magic happens! They must be respected and cherished! Thumbs down, organizers!

The conference format for communicating science is interesting. It takes the researchers out of their daily routines (well, more or less), and to some extent forces them to listen in on subjects that they otherwise wouldn’t have paid the slightest attention. This is good. Even the most experienced researchers cannot keep up with all the data being published. Meeting colleagues in an informal setting and discussing work over food and wine also works great. It’s brilliant for networking! However, this must happen organically and cannot be forced. The organizers attempted to schedule informal meetings betweens speakers and audience during breaks (“science dating”), but I think that defies the point of informality. In this case, a lot of empty slots emphasized this. Or maybe it was just the lack of breaks?

What about social media? I’ve been going to a number of medical conferences over the past few years, and to be honest I haven’t really noticed anyone actively using it. My first conference in the museum world was very different. Granted, it was a conference about the web, but everyone was tweeting throughout the entire event. Online forums were being used actively for discussions. And (of course) all information about the conference was available online. Including all abstracts. This is very far from the case at medical meetings I’ve attended. Where the rest of the world is moving towards Web 3.0, they remain an early beta. And this is sad. It seems there is too much focus on controlling information rather than letting it flow free. Sharing. Engaging. Not only for the benefit of the meeting attendees, but perhaps also the rest of the world? Am I being naïve?

acquisition, aesthetics, aesthetics of biomedicine, art and biomed, collections, conferences, curation, displays/exhibits, material studies, medical humanities, museum studies, public outreach, science communication studies, visual studies, visualization

A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions

Two weeks ago I mentioned that the Museums Journal had published Ken Arnolds and my Dogme 95-style manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions, first presented last September at a conference organised by Medical Museion in Copenhagen. We have now received the journal’s permission to publish the full version of the manifesto. Enjoy and/or criticize!

Just over 15 years ago, Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg spearheaded Dogme 95, a manifesto to purify the art of film-making.

The aim was to engage audiences more profoundly and make sure they weren’t distracted by over-production. The Dogme manifesto ruled out special effects, post-production changes and other tricks in order to focus on the story and the performances.

Since then, writers, theatre directors and other arts practitioners have all found inspiration in Dogme 95’s back-to-basics philosophy. Dogme has been criticised, as have some of the films made according to its rules, but as exhibition producers, this classic vow of chastity has inspired us as a way of guiding and sharpening the creative practice of making science, technology and medicine exhibitions.

These rules have been written and published with almost indecent speed. They are deliberately provocative prompts for further discussion. This manifesto is not a definitive set of working proposals, but a draft, which will no doubt be modified and sharpened through challenge and feedback.

And anyone who knows the institutions we are based at will be aware that the exhibitions we have presided over have often not followed one or more of these rules.

This manifesto is almost reference-free, but this does not mean we think the ideas are purely our own. There are vast bodies of literature on science communication, exhibition making, art history and museology; we have read some of this literature and been influenced by it. We also have learned much from the museums we have visited.

1. Exhibitions should be research-led, not a form of dissemination

Curators should use exhibitions to find things out (for themselves and for their visitors) and not just regurgitate what is already known. Good curators are inspired and imaginative researchers who find and then build on the investigations of experts and colleagues, juxtaposing varied understandings about their chosen topic. They add their own insights and gradually come up with new ideas and perspectives.

2. A scientist should always be involved in the exhibition, a technologist if it is about technology

Don’t shy away from drawing on real expertise in interpreting a topic or finding exhibits. But this is not to say that the aim of the exhibition is simply to give voice to the views of these experts. They are not, nor should they be encouraged to see themselves as, the curators, but it is vital that their perspectives are present in the final exhibition.

3. Be clear about exhibitions being “multi-authored”

Exhibitions emerge from curatorial collaborations between experts and designers. But a show’s funders, the institutional context and other stakeholders have a bearing on the final outcome; it should be possible for exhibition visitors to find out about these influences.

The project teams who make exhibitions deserve to be credited. Those responsible for the show not only need to take a bow, they also need to be held responsible for its contents and impact.

4. Use only original material

Exhibitions should engage audiences with original material rather than reproductions and props. If you cannot illustrate a topic with original artefacts, images and documents, ask yourself if an exhibition is the best way to make the point. Models, replicas and reproductions can be shown, but only if this is the point of showing them.

Reproductions of artworks should not be used, unless the work’s natural medium is “facsimile” – for example, digital photographs. The use of scientific and medical images raises complicated questions, such as what is the “original” format of a microscopic image of a cell?

Most scientific images today are minted as digital data, and their final appearance invariably owes much to enhancements and cropping. How this material should be displayed and labelled needs consideration. It is often better to leave it out all together.

5. Never show ready-made science

Focus on the processes of science: science in the making; the triumph of discovery; the frustration and blind alleys explored along the way. Also, look at the social and cultural processes of scientific ideas becoming accepted and embedded.

6. Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder

Exhibitions provide opportunities to explore topics in ways that bring new light to sometimes forgotten or less-well understood aspects of medicine, science, technology and their histories. But this urge to demystify subjects should not be allowed to render exhibitions earnestly didactic.

Deliberately include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for. Visitors should leave exhibitions wanting to find out more.

7. Reject most exhibition ideas

Exhibitions represent the meeting point between subjects and material culture, and can be approached from either end – themes or objects first, or a mixture of the two. But often, topics that seem promising will not be worth developing because there simply aren’t good enough objects with which to explore or support them.

Similarly, many areas of material culture end up just not being interesting enough to make a show about. Too often, exhibitions are made from empty ideas of stupid objects. It is worth searching for a topic and a set of objects that harmoniously amplify and mutually enrich each other.

8. Leave out as much as possible

Less is usually more in exhibitions. Visitors will remember and enjoy looking at 10 carefully chosen things more than a 100 that are reasonably well selected.

The most important aspect of an exhibition is its outer boundaries, which keep out the mass of distractions that lie beyond. In the digital era, a core value of a museum exhibition is that it makes its point through displaying a few selected original objects.

9. Embrace the showbusiness of exhibitions

Audiences come to exhibitions in their leisure time and deserve to be lifted out of themselves. They will respond to the drama of the best exhibits, displays, design, writing and lighting.

Make sure that all of this is done well and given the greatest polish. This will enhance the presence of the objects and the impact of the ideas. Don’t be ashamed to admit that making exhibitions is, in part, a matter of putting on a show.

10. Celebrate the ephemeral quality of exhibitions

Catalogues, web-presence and filmed versions of exhibitions can lengthen the shadows cast by exhibitions, but they will never come close to keeping alive the actual experience of visiting a show.

This is an important part of the magic of exhibitions. Like good pieces of theatre, they gain much of their energy by being around for a limited time and then disappearing. The fact that they are time-limited gives their makers a degree of freedom to experiment and be daring. Grasp it!

11. Make exhibitions true to the geography of their venues

The principle is that knowledge is “situated” – the context in which we contemplate and acquire it can seem as important as the ideas or facts themselves. Exhibition makers need to think hard about how to work with the “place” of an exhibition.

Consider what is lost in touring an exhibition where the subject becomes detached from the local context. The country, the city, the venue, the room, and the set and design of an exhibition, even the showcases and the orientation of individual objects – all have a bearing on the meanings that audiences derive from them.

12. Avoid artificial lighting

Use natural light where possible. Start with the light available and build up from it. If possible, reveal the windows and keep the doors open. Let the natural layout of the building be apparent, make it clear where you have introduced false walls. This will enable visitors to keep a sense of where they are.

And don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the background for an exhibition has either to be a neutral black box or a pristine white cube. Ideally, a show should look and feel very different on a midsummer morning to a winter evening.

13. Always involve more than one sense

It is impossible for visitors to turn off their non-visual senses in an exhibition – they will hear, touch and smell things no matter what. So make sure that some of the tactile, audio, or olfactory experiences of an exhibition are curated. Exhibitions work by teasing their visitors into thinking that they could get close enough to what they see to touch it, even while making sure they don’t.

But curators should think about how to introduce at least a few objects that visitors can touch. Never use artificial sounds or odours, but try hard to find ways to enhance the audio and olfactory qualities of the original objects, getting visitors to use their ears and noses.

14. Make exhibitions for inquisitive adults

If you aim at educationally under-achieving primary school children, it will be impossible to engage anyone else (and you are unlikely to engage even your target audience). Many children and teenagers are keenly attracted to adult culture, but very few adults see the attraction of young material.

Never make exhibitions for educational purposes – other media and methods are more effective. It’s also worth bearing in mind that exhibitions are, by their nature, a “childish” medium, bringing out playfulness in all of us. This should be encouraged, but to focus deliberately on young audiences reaps diminishing returns.

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

Some visitors might not be interested in reading what the curators write, while others might not look at many objects. Some will be interested in aspects of a topic that the curators might not have come across.

Because of this, when an exhibition opens, it is only ever the second or third draft of an idea that will, through revision, reach maybe its eighth or ninth incarnation by the time it closes.

Exhibitions should be alive, and change is a vital part of life. Even in the most “stable” shows, lights will need adjusting and labels redrafting. An exhibit might even have to be removed or replaced. More radically, some exhibitions should be deliberately half-finished, or set up so that updates can be added halfway through.

16. Make exhibitions the jumping off place for further engagement

Good exhibitions are the point of departure for a longer relationship. The value of exhibitions should only partly be judged by analysing how many people come, how long they spent in a show and what they think of it. On this basis alone, most exhibitions are foolishly expensive ventures, particularly in these cash-strapped times.

Don’t forget that, just occasionally, exhibitions can really change visitors’ lives and this is worth a lot. Effective exhibitions can also bring in new objects to museums, have an impact on recruitment, add to shop sales, improve the organisation’s reputation, and provide a context for corporate celebrations. There is a virtual avalanche of cultural capital that can flow from them: this should be valued from the start.

17. Don’t be afraid to bend, break or reinvent the rules

displays/exhibits, history of medicine, public outreach, recent biomed, science communication studies, visualization, web resources

Telling stories about medical instruments

“How do we display artifacts which are neither sexy nor beautiful?” asked Yves Thomas in his presentation at last month’s conference in Copenhagen.

His own answer to the question was to bring a human dimension to these objects by adding virtual elements such as interviews with the researchers or video clips of the object in use. Read Yves’ full abstract here.


Nurin Veis addressed much the same issue in her talk, focusing on changing our idea about what is aesthetically pleasing instead of trying to sex-up the object. Considering the physical nature of the visitor’s presence in the museum space, we should use that space in a theatrical way to give a full experience of the objects in a historical and scientific context.

By asking the visitors to use their bodies in ways they don’t usually do in a museum, and by providing the objects with a broader context, we can change the visitor’s views on which objects are boring and which are beautiful. Read Nurin’s full abstract here.

The following discussion included comments from Morten Skydsgaard, Danny Birchall, Kim Sawchuk, Judy Chelnick, Sniff Andersen Nexø, Yin Chung Au, John Durant and Thomas Söderqvist.

See a list of all abstracts from the conference here. Read more about the EAMHMS video clip project here.

curation, displays/exhibits, public outreach, science communication studies, teaching

Investigating museum visitors

Another theme at the “Contemporary medical science and technology as a challenge to museums”-conference was ‘investigating museum visitors’.

Can visitors’ experiences help us make our museums better? Should an exhibition be guided by what the curator is passionate about or by what she thinks the visitor might find interesting? Or should we simply ask visitors to co-curate exhibitions? This was some of the questions that Stella Mason and Alex Tyrrell put forth in their talks.


The short talks (read Stella’s abstract here and Alex’ here) were followed by a discussion about the different kinds of visitors and how there might be more than one voice (i.e. visitor or curator) present in an exhibition. It was pointed out that visitors react to the passion as much as to the knowledge behind an exhibition. But then again what do visitors think of exhibitions curated by people ‘like themselves’. It’s a nice idea, but does it make a nice exhibition?

The discussion (at the end of the video clip) included comments from Danny Birchall, Thomas Söderqvist, Nurin Veis, Yin Chung Au, John Durant, Wendy Atkinson, Adam Bencard and Ken Arnold.

See a list of all abstracts and video clips from the conference here. Read more about the EAMHMS video clip project here.

aesthetics of biomedicine, art and biomed, conferences, displays/exhibits, museum studies, public outreach

Curious collections and exhibitions

This session at the conference “Contemporary medical science and technology as a challenge to museums” in Copenhagen last month circled around the concept of the Renaissance Wunderkammer, and how we might use techniques of curiosity and wonder to engage people with scientific and historical objects.

Joanna Ebenstein —who writes the blog Morbid Anatomy— talked about how we can use the feelings an object or a collection of objects evoke to make the museum visit a personal and interesting journey.


Joanna suggested we display artefacts in a way that appeal to the visitors’ curiosity. Better let people be inspired to investigate objects and their history for themselves, instead of presenting them with an educational fact sheet. Curiosity cabinets don’t tell straightforward stories, but activate the visitors.

In the discussion afterwards it was pointed out that the curiosity cabinet’s clustered and intimate atmosphere might be a challenge to modern museum aesthetics. There might also be a danger that it mystifies science. On the other hand the Wunderkammer aesthetic could be useful for museums who don’t wish to present answers as much as incite people to ask more questions.


The power of the Wunderkammer approach for presenting contemporary medicine was questioned. However, in Joanna’s view recent biomedicine is just as emotionally evocative as the objects of the original curiosity cabinets. Feelings of horror when confronted with the perspective of being able to clone living human beings, or wonder at the intricate microscopic chaos of the molecular microworld are also evoked by many kinds of contemporary objects, she suggested.

The discussion after Joanna’s presentation included comments from John Durant, Kim Sawchuk, Kristen Ehrenberger, Danny Birchall, Karen Ingham, Robert Bud, Robert Martensen, Claudia Stein and Ramunas Kondratas (see the end of the clip).

Read Joanna’s full abstract here.

For a list of all conference abstracts, see here. Read more about this video clip project here.


art and biomed, conferences, material studies, museum studies, public outreach, recent biomed

The molecular in the museum

The implication of the theme — ‘Contemporary medicine and technology as a challenge to museums’ — for this year’s biannual EAMHMS conference in Copenhagen last month is that it is difficult to exhibit the molecular level of the recent medical understanding of the body. How can we display such molecular and other tiny structures? And what metaphors and discourses do we use to describe a molecular understanding of the body?

The session “The molecular in the museum” discussed this problem. Jim Garretts, senior curator at the Thackray Museum in Leeds, suggested in his presentation that we work more closely together with researchers and research institutions, so as to allow the visitors to get an insight into practical medical science today. That way our abstract idea of things like the molecular is transformed into a more practice-based understanding of how the molecule functions in the body. Read Jim’s full abstract here.

After Jim’s presentation our own postdoc Adam Bencard put the idea of the molecular body into a larger philosophical perspective. He argued that there is a change in our understanding of the body, from a focus on genomics and the idea of life as text, towards proteomics and a focus on the materiality of being. This shift is interesting and profiting for museums because it puts the materiality of our exhibition objects, and the physical engagement with medical science that we provide, into focus. Read Adam’s full abstract here.


After these two presentations followed a lively discussion with contributions from, among others, John DurantDanny BirchallSuzanne Anker, Morten Skydsgaard, and Thomas Schnalke.

(Read more about the EAMHMS video clip project here).

aesthetics of biomedicine, ageing, displays/exhibits, public outreach, recent biomed, visualization

‘An Ageing World’ — a science-design installation about global demography

DSC01220We’ve just set up the installation ‘An Ageing World’ in the main lobby of the Faculty of Health Sciences here in Copenhagen.

The installation has been made to mark the IARU-conference on Ageing, Longevity and Health that takes place 5-7 October, organised by the Center for Healthy Ageing.

The simple idea was to make a commentary on the rapidly changing demographic of the human population:

Protruding from a round earth disc, soaring a couple of feet above the floor, are age structure diagrams (histograms) from seven countries around the world (Denmark, China, Japan, United States, Bolivia, Malawi and Papua New Guinea) for the years of 1950, 2000 and 2050. The histogram protrusions are illuminated from below by means of fiber optics in contrast to the dark-blue earth disc.

Age structure diagrams, especially in poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas, traditionally take the form of pyramids (lots of kids and decreasing number of adults as the population grows older). But in the rich countries of the world the pyramids are already now turning into pillars, and in 2050 they will become mushroom shaped. In short, this is a major demographic challenge, which has enormous consequences for global health systems.

Bente and I got the idea to the installation from the way she, Camilla Mordhorst and architech Anne Schnettler used physical age structure diagrams in the Oldetopia exhibition here at Medical Museion a couple of years ago — this idea in turn had grown out of discussions we had with Susanne Bauer and Sybilla Nikolow over how statistics was displayed in the old Deutsche Hygiene Museum in the 1930s.

We then discussed different design solutions with exhibition designer Mikael Thorsted and graphic designer Lars Møller Nielsen (Studio 8), and eventually agreed on the light disc with a pixel-ish world map — with East Asia in the center, and with Europe and the US on the rim — and with the protrusing illuminated histograms. The disc was produced by Exponent Stougaard A/S, using a new printing method

Here are images from the installation of the disc in the main lobby of the Panum building last Thursday:



After four hours all 21 ‘pyramids’ were glowing and ‘An Ageing World’ was completed.

Throughout the day, students and staff stopped by, gathering in small groups and discussing the diagrams.




What started as an icon for the IARU conference, thus turned out — quite unexpectedly — to be a informal engagement site for understanding global demography.

displays/exhibits, public outreach, seminars

Wellcome visitors to Medical Museion

Medicine and health are too important subjects to be left to scientists only. That is one of the main ideas behind the Wellcome Collection of London. All their exhibitions are medical, but they are never just medical. There is always something more. Like the ’War and Medicine’ exhibition which was accompanied by art video installations of wounded soldiers in Afghanistan.

      lisa jamieson l      james peto l

Last week we hosted an informal seminar with senior curator James Peto and event manager Lisa Jamieson of the Wellcome Collection. One of the topics was the relationship between scientific research and public engagement in a museum context. As head of Wellcome Collections Public Programmes Team Ken Arnold said: “Research should be publicly relevant and public relations should be research rich.”

Another discussion was about how we use our senses in the exhibition. Sounds, smells and visuals have an important part to play in the modern museum. Events were the museum objects are brought back to life, or art works that challenge our formalized understandings of what goes on in the human body, are some of the ways to engage the visitors. Another is to use the web media; live streaming surgery or engaging in online discussions. Or blog about what goes on behind the scenes …

Watch video from the seminar here:

public outreach

A kind of medical ‘museum’ I have quite mixed feelings about

I’m thinking of the Corpus Museum between Amsterdam and Den Haag — a 100 feet high building designed as the contours of the human body.

The “museum” invites the visitors on a “journey through the human body” during which they can “see, feel and hear how the human body works and what roles healthy food, healthy life and plenty of exercise plays”.

Opened two years ago, this seems to be the most extreme example of medical edutainment I’ve heard about so far: 

Questions as ‘Why do I have to sleep?’, ‘what happens when I sneeze’, ‘how does my hair grow’ are answered in CORPUS by means of tangible, visible and audible conceptions during the ‘journey through the human body’. CORPUS uses the latest technology in the field of imagery, sound and 3D effects to present and explain all aspects of the medical aspects of the human body.

I’ve only read about it on their website, so maybe I’ll change my mind if I visit it IRL.

Anyone who has been there?

Thanks to Bertalan (ScienceRoll) for the tip and the pics!

Next »