Visiting Associate Professor, Faculty of Health, University of Copenhagen: Medical Museion (2006 – 2007)

 

Working as part of the research team ‘Biomedicine on Display,’ I helped to develop the Art and Biomedicine research stream at the Medical Museion. This included the development and programming of a 30-person international interdisciplinary workshop entitled Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context (with Dr Jan-Eric Olsén and PI Professor Director Thomas Soderqvist) as well as a day-long symposium in collaboration with the Royal Danish Art Academy: Art and Biomedicine: Beyond the Body

My Visiting Professorship at Museion contributed to the research direction of ‘Biomedicine on Display’ in the run-up to the exhibition Split + Splice, for which I was subsequently made Creative Director. ‘Biomedicine on Display’ was the short name for the five-year long project, funded by Novo Nordisk and led by Professor Soderqvist: “Danish Biomedicine 1955-2005: Integrating Medical Museology and the Historiography of Contemporary Biomedicine”

Professor Soderqvist invited me to be involved because of my highly innovative exhibition practice, coupled with experience of working with scientists and a knowledge of both history of science and of the inner workings of museums. The main research events that I was involved in producing jointly with Professor Soderqvist and post-doc Dr Jan-Eric Olsen were as follows.

‘Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context’ — a closed international workshop (August 30 – September 1 2007, Medical Museion, Copenhagen). Over 30 participants were involved in this intensive event that involved pre-circulated papers and a very open mind. These are the issues we met to address:

The aim of this closed workshop is to help forge new strategies of making sense of and presenting recent biomedicine in museums, especially taking into account the unique difficulties of rendering visible material biomedical practices in their social, cultural, political, aesthetic and scientific complexity.

The workshop will bring together key practitioners from a range of methodological approaches, including artists with a firm understanding of biomedical practice, museologists and material culture scholars, historians of science, art historians and aestheticians, biomedical practitioners with a knowledge of contemporary bioart, and visualisation specialists.

The conjuncture of biomedicine and aesthetics is a rapidly growing field of artistic practice and academic reflection, dealing with an array of issues, from the public engagement with current biomedicine to methodological overlaps between the practices of artists and laboratory researchers. Museums are key institutions for this hybrid field of inquiry.

 

A sense of the specific issues we were trying to unpick can be garnered from my article (for both the Museion Blog and its Yearly Report) entitled The Huge Invisibles. The list of attendees included Ken Arnold (Wellcome Trust); David Edwards (Harvard/Le Laboratoire); Anke te Heesen (now of Humboldt-Universität); Sharon MacDonald (University of Manchester); Arthur Olsen (Scripps Research Institute); Claire Pentecost (School of the Arts Institute Chicago), Miriam van Rijsingen (University of Amsterdam), Calum Storrie (London), Richard Wingate (Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, King’s College, London), and more.

We also commissioned, with the help of Danish curator Stine Hebert, the highly accomplished sound artist, Jacob Kirkegaard, to make a work for the event. His Labyrinthitis, which was premiered at Museion in the old operating theatre on 2 September 2007, has gone on to be presented in many other contexts, and has been produced as a recording by Touch Music.

 

 

Following hot on the heels of the Workshop and the premiere of Labyrinthitis, we moved — quite literally — down the street to the Royal Danish Art Academy for the public part of the research proceedings, the conference Beyond the Body. This was a collaboration with the Schools of Visual Art, and Rector Mikkel Bogh was our host and partner for the day.  It was wonderful to be able to go from one seat of learning to another, from medicine to fine art, both housed in 18th century buildings, as 21st century interdisciplinary practitioners. Several hundred people were waiting for us at the Art Academy.

They day was organised into sessions of course, and it was possible to immediately transfer to a public arena some of the discussions we had had in the closed Workshop in the preceding days. Among those who spoke, and whom I have not yet mentioned above, were Ben Fry (data visualisation designer); Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble); Ingeborg Reichle (Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften); and James Elkins (E.C. Chadbourne Chair, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago).*

Medical Museion is one of several museums of the University of Copenhagen, and its collections span some 300 years of medical history. Nestled within the Faculty of Health, which also encompasses the Panum Research and Teaching Institute, a dozen Teaching Hospitals including the Royal Hospital, and the dazzling new Proteomics Centre, the Medical Museion connects a large network of cutting edge health practitioners to the history, origins and critique of medicine today.

As a research institute in history and philosophy of medicine, Museion is not alone in the Faculty of Health. Indeed, it is overseen by the Institute of Public Health, whose social scientists regularly contribute to Museion’s intellectual programme. What is unusual about it is that the primary sources for this research institute are collection objects, not solely archives and texts.

Director Thomas Soderqvist was appointed to Museion a decade ago, and has made of it a research-intensive institution which has welcomed some highly innovative researchers — including me.

“By focusing on integration between research, collecting, education and dissemination beyond the Museum world, the Medical Museion will go beyond the traditional division between universities as pure research-and-teaching units, and museums which are primarily collection and dissemination institutions.”                   Vision Statement, Medical Museion

 

Of course, all university museums have this potential, and all museums effect intensive research into their collections in ways that are not yet fully acknowledged as such — cataloguing collections of material culture requires a level of interdisciplinary skill that few academics can even imagine, for example. What’s special about Museion is that an attempt is being made to look both ways. It’s something that could not be done without agile and highly skilled collections management and conservation — Museion is lucky to have Ion Meyer as Head of Collections, one of the most accomplished conservators of organic material working today, and a consummate museum professional.

Another thing that’s special about Museion is that it is paying close attention to the history of medicine of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  It’s hard enough for medical practitioners to keep up, let alone a museum — but the skills of medical historians, philosophers and social scientists can make a major contribution to self-reflexivity on the part of those practitioners, and to public understanding and engagement with the huge issues brought up by rapidly advancing biotechnology.

One of the main aims of my post was to create an arena in which a group of highly skilled post-doctoral researchers in history of contemporary biomedicine could collaboratively conceptualise, and then actually make, an exhibition – a project entirely new to them, and for which they had no prior training. Exhibition-making is both an intellectual methodology engaging with material culture and a pragmatic, technically complex task — not for the faint-hearted.

I developed a programme and syllabus to teach these humanities post-doctoral students how to think about – and how to think through – the material culture of their field, and then how to actually make a real exhibition to a defined deadline. Though this was technically post-doctoral supervision of a kind, I certainly learned as much from them as they learned from me — and together we went on to produce an exhibition so successful it won the 2010 Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits of the Society for the History of Technology against stiff international competition from much larger and better resourced institutions. That exhibition was Split + Splice — its co-curators with me were Dr Susanne Bauer; Dr Søren Bak-Jensen; Dr Sniff Andersen Nexø; Dr Jan Eric Olsén; and, until spring of 2008, Hanne Jessen.

 

*An archive of all three events over the five-day period can be found on the University of Copenhagen’s Biocampus website: they part-funded the events as well. Smaller events were no less important in the work of that year — Museion also received Jens Hauser and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.

Further Links: Medical Museion; Jacob Kirkegaard, Labyrinthitis; Royal Danish Art Academy; Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits

[Image References: detail of flyer for Art and Biomedicine; a lab desktop at the Proteomics Centre with a pair of dolls distributed by Eppendorf; Jacob Kirkegaard working on Labyrinthitis in the Medical Museion operating theatre]