Split + Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine, Exhibition Creative Director, Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen (2008 to 2009)
Creation and production of this Dibner Award winning show about contemporary biomedicine; leading a team of four post-doctoral medical historians and social scientists, an exhibition designer and a graphic designer; interpreting the Museum’s collections; co-editing the exhibition catalogue.
Following on directly from my position as Visiting Associate Professor, Medical Museion commissioned me as Creative Director of the main exhibition outcome of their Novo Nordisk Foundation funded research project, ‘Biomedicine on Display.’ That was the short name for the five-year long project led by Museion Director, Professor Thomas Soderqvist: “Danish Biomedicine 1955-2005: Integrating Medical Museology and the Historiography of Contemporary Biomedicine.”
I worked closely with a small team of highly accomplished post-docs who had never created an exhibition before, teaching them how to think through objects and how to use objects to clearly convey abstract concepts — far more complex and rewarding than the ‘story-telling’ often advocated for science museums.
My wonderful co-curators were Dr Susanne Bauer, Dr Søren Bak-Jensen, Dr Sniff Andersen Nexø and Dr Jan Eric Olsén. Their research interests ranged from epidemiological practices with data to organ transplant networks and techniques; from IVF developments and law to medical visualisation techniques & their impacts. So I learned as much from them as they learned from me. Their research, while aiming at close histories of biomedical research, also already drew on scholarship of material and visual culture.
From the outset we decided that we would build the exhibition up from their research interests, and not from any encyclopedic or public expectation of what an exhibition about contemporary biomedicine ought to contain. In our early Exhibition Brief we expressed our aims:
The core aim of the exhibition is to facilitate visitors’ informed reflections upon the ways in which recent biomedicine challenges significant cultural categories including the body and identity, therefore influencing our very understanding of ourselves as human beings: our sense of “personhood.”
As I further outlined later at the September 2009 conference of the Artefacts Group, convened at the Science Museum, London:
We wanted to take the visitor beyond the ‘user end’ of biomedicine and into its engine room, and experiment with innovative ways of bringing some of the big ‘invisibles’ of biomedical practice to a larger public. Questions of samples and storage, data generation and management, the integration of analytical instruments with research and clinical bureaucracies, the legal frameworks of biomedicine were all on our agenda. We wanted to address the social, political and cultural enormities of contemporary biomedicine without losing sight of the historical. As historians and epistemologists, we did not want to teach people the science, but rather to teach people how to think about science; to think about how bodies are contingent, flexible, fluid, resilient; how materials, tools and instruments have a history; how conditions for the production of medical knowledge change over time.*
Of course, taking seriously these sorts of epistemological questions has a huge effect on the final appearance of an exhibition — just as taking aesthetic questions seriously means confronting the philosophical issues that material culture presents. Medical Museion’s position as a university museum integrated with a Faculty of Health was crucial to the exhibition’s success: the involvement of biomedical researchers and clinicians in the project was integral to the research projects the post-docs ran.
Split + Splice (in Danish, Del + Hel), was about the inter-relations between the culture of biomedicine and the enormous complexities of 21st century living. The exhibition explored these complexities through the material culture, objects and instruments used by biomedical practitioners in research and in clinical activities.
We showed the visitor biomedicine’s Cold Rooms, its Wet Labs, its number crunching, its visualisation practices. Its incubators and ion exchange columns. Its legislative constraints and its media leaks. We took them into some of the historical origins of biomedicine’s process of fragmenting the body into smaller and smaller pieces. We came to the conclusion that all of biomedical practice is a never-ending attempt to contain the torrent of life and manage the flows of this cascade of complexity from biosample to dataset, from clinic to lab, from individual to populace. These practices of containment and flow tell us much about the cultures of biomedicine and the kinds of societies that its practices produce.
Much as biomedicine itself, Split + Splice was an innovative hybridisation of complex practices. It was not exactly science communication; it did not teach the visitor comprehensively about the field of biomedicine. Neither did it show a triumphalist progression of miraculous discovery. Split + Splice was not about the magic bullet, but rather the minutiae of biomedicine’s daily practice — and its implications.
If the sheer knife of a microtome can give us the startling and strange histological slice of tissue that revealed the neuron to Ramon y Cajal for the first time, then we must also be able to wield with equal precision what we know about aesthetics to reveal vital information about the cultures that made the objects under scrutiny; here we investigated the prosaic but fundamental way that both plastics and computing have revolutionised medicine. Under a humanities microscope, epistemological investigations of the ritual and often hypnotically repetitive practices of biomedicine can reveal, among other things, the social assumptions that often underpin disease prediction.
In Split + Splice we used different techniques from the arts, the sciences and the humanities as prisms to analyse the same material in several ways. The exhibition’s ‘catalogue’ User Manual is also the object index for the entire show: a gift to the visitor to take away and keep, but also something that set the objects free from text, allowing them to be discovered in their form and materiality by the visitor.
The User Manual was edited by me and Søren Bak-Jensen, but the concept was collective and many of the contributions were made by our co-curators and by the indefatigable Head of Collections, Ion Meyer. It was beautifully designed by Lars Møller Nielsen to sit in the hand, fit in the pocket and be an exhibition guide that felt like a set of instructions for a new bit of kit. After all, an exhibition is a ‘technology’ too.
We were lucky to have been able to work with Lars, and with the excellent exhibition designer Mikael Thorsted, whose experience, intellectual capacity and formal ingenuity were essential features of the exhibition’s success.
And it was very successful: in 2010 Split + Splice won the coveted Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits of the Society for the History of Technology — the only international award in the world for science museum exhibitions. It was the first time the prize was won by a medical history museum, and the first time it was won by a Scandinavian museum. The following is a quotation from the Prize Citation:
This exhibition offered the visitor a ‘fantastic voyage’ of inquiry through the cultures, objects and practices of medicine now and then, in a revolutionary exhibition format.
Catching the visitors’ attention with original, well-designed, interactive and playful displays, it provided fragmentary impressions of biomedical research. Furthermore, it encouraged the visitor to think beyond the practices of research by alluding to or highlighting broader impacts of biomedical practices on society and parallel developments in culture. Room labels such as “Avalanches of Data,” “Reality Show,” and “Mass Observation” hinted at crucial developments within biomedicine while raising questions in the User Manual.
Split + Splice represents a new paradigm of the exhibition that should inspire others to rethink how they explain or experience the actions of the boxes and containers that affect — if not define — us all.
It is this ‘new paradigm of the exhibition’ as a field of research practice that I find most exciting, and which is, to me, the greatest honour of the Dibner Award to Split + Splice. Increasingly there is a sense of the importance and uniqueness of exhibition-making as a scholarly activity — from the Artefacts Group, from conferences such as The Exhibition as a Product and Generator of Knowledge, and in the most recent Presidential communication from the History of Science Society.
Working with objects and with display techniques is a serious pursuit that opens whole new fields of understanding and inquiry. Split + Splice was an international collaboration across countries and languages, involving interdisciplinary practice from labs and libraries to design and fine art. Bringing current science practice together with cutting edge history and philosophy of medicine as well as innovation in musem practice produced an amazing result. I look forward to further such productive opportunities.
USER MANUAL Split + Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine, Martha Fleming and Søren Bak-Jensen, editors. Copenhagen: Medical Museion, 2009 (catalogue in English and Danish).
* My article based on this presentation will be published in Artefacts, Volume 9: Analyzing Art and Aesthetics, Smithsonian Institute Press (2013). The Artefacts Group is an association of historians of science working mainly in museums who share the belief that the use of objects is essential to serious historical study in the field.
Further Links: Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen; Split + Splice on the Corporeality Blog; The Artefacts Group; Lars Møller Nielsen; Mikael Thorsted; The Dibner Award; Lynn Nyhart’s address in HSS Newsletter; Full Flickr Slideshow of Split + Splice
[Image References: all images are of the exhibition Split + Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine and its User Manual catalogue, with the exception of the image in the middle of this page, which is of a 96 well clear plastic microplate designed and produced by Thermo Fisher Scientific]