Tag Archive for: Medical Humanities

Looking and Healing: Artists and their Doctors

Looking and Healing: Artists and their Doctors, Lecture Seminar, Centre for Humanities and Health, King’s College London (May 2012)


Artists and doctors share highly developed observational skills and a fundamental love for humankind.  This lecture explores some historically revealing relationships between these different practitioners, and the intellectual, social and professional complexes in which these relationships sit.  Representational, technological and ethical epistemologies can be traced in the performed intimacies of such self-reflexive clinical arenas.  Examples from both physiological and psychiatric medicine are explored, in pairings from Goya and Arrieta through Munch and Jakobsen as well as Duchamp and Dumouchel and beyond. Painting, engraving, photography and sculpture from approximately 1750 to 1990 are addressed.

An earlier version of this lecture was given at the 2006 British Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Norwich, at the invitation of Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, then President of the British Society for the History of Science. Professor Jordanova is a leading authority on scientific portraiture, and is principal investigator for the medical portraiture strand of Kings’ Centre for Humanities and Health. We had first worked together in 2002, when as Development Manager of the Royal Society, I invited her to become involved in the Society’s portraiture collection.

It is not the only subject on which she has invited my thoughts vis à vis medical humanities. In 2005, Professor Jordanova was Director of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.  It is a vital centre for the development of interdisciplinary practice, and her directorship was a particularly dynamic period for CRASSH. Notably, she convened a fantastic workshop in December 2005 which arguably refocused CRASSH for the next decade: The Future of Interdisciplinarity.

She also invited me to speak at an exploratory closed workshop on Humanities and Medicine in Cambridge Undergraduate Education in October that same year. My contribution to the day concerned the visual arts in relation to medical practice and was entitled Looking and Healing: The Arts in Medicine.  It is linked to Artists and their Doctors by more than just the title.

What was at issue in October 2005 is still at issue today: the overlaps between medicine and the humanities and the contributions each make — and could make — to the effective practice of the other.  The two crucial issues are, I feel: the importance for medicine and medics of understanding the highly charged representational issues in medical imagery, from abstraction and realism to diagrams and data visualisation; and the field of ethics to which a truly self-reflexive medical practice could productively contribute as well as adhere to.

This is the précis of The Arts in Medicine that I handed out after my presentation:

Medical students and arts students alike need to be aware of the long historical working relationship between the two practices in the development of anatomical understanding as a legacy;

Imaging practices have gone far beyond the optical in medicine, and medical practitioners (as well as artists and the lay public) need training to parse the origins and effects of data-produced images which carry hidden within their ’visualisation’ a long complex history of representation with vested interests;

Not all those medically trained practice exclusively in medicine: investing in this deeper structure to shared intellectual territory, one which gives rise to new methodologies and not just new data, is one which could bear fruit for both medical and arts & humanities teaching;

The exploration, exposition, practice and development of the whole fundamental way in which we look at — or approach — each other as human beings is at the core of any medical activity, and emotional and intellectual instruments for accommodating it within the self and for parsing it in relation to daily practice are crucial to learning medicine: this is practicing ethics, not just ethics-as-law;

It is also true that physicians thus trained and engaged could make major contributions in turn to ethics on a much wider plane than medical ethics and legislation alone, extending to fundamental philosophical questions and the understanding of humanity — physicians could and should contribute to the humanities.


Interestingly, I heard this last note echoed five years later by the senior medical practitioner and former editor of the British Medical Journal, Dr Richard Smith, at the London School of Economics event, Valuing the Humanities. It is the intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship, and its existential power, which has potential in the field of ethics.  This is one of the conclusions of my lecture, Artists and their Doctors:


Looking at life, and looking at one another, is a very complex process socially, psychically, ethically. The eyes with which both artists and physicians survey the body acknowledges ‘the human’ in the form before it and the call to mercy and to transcendence which we make in standing before each other every day before even speaking a word. Attention is paid without judgement, and yet the attention itself issues from the fundamental human encounter of one person with another.

This is not just about bedside manner, or about medical legislation, or about inspiration, but about the way in which we approach each other as human beings. There are, inherent in the portraits I have been showing you, realities about the human condition – about a face-to-face that is both detached and full of love, about the different ways in which we keep each other as best we can from death and from the fear of death.




Further Links: King’s College London Centre for Humanities and Health; British Association for the Advancement of Science; British Society for the History of Science; CRASSH; LSE Valuing The Humanities

[Image References: Photographic Self Portrait in Dr Jacobsen’s Nerve Clinic, by Edvard Munch (Copenhagen 1908); Photographic Self Portrait, painting the portrait of Dr Jacobsen, by Edvard Munch (Copenhagen 1909); Portrait of Dr Jacobsen, by Edvard Munch (1909)]

Navigating Interdisciplinarity

Navigating Interdisciplinarity, Wellcome Trust 75 Event, University of Dundee Life Sciences and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (2011)


The extraordinary potential of interdisciplinary practice often meets bureaucratic obstacles. Enumerating them — and working strategically to eliminate them — is part of the essential groundwork to be done in order to build productive, practical methodological bridges across the arts, the humanities and the sciences. The responsibility of universities to fully support the researchers they engage, and to enable the knowledge that they produce to be truly effective, will of necessity involve a sea-change in the way both universities and research are structured and funded.

That sounds like a very tall order, but it is one that is coming from all sides: this event was co-organised by artists and life scientists. The University of Dundee is big enough to have both an art college and a life sciences department which are both known internationally, and yet small enough that there is real exchange, with respect and cameraderie, between researchers in both fields. With the support of the Wellcome Trust, their exchange projects — from printmaking, visualisation and data-modeling to architectural collaboration and the promise of a shared gallery/research space — are going to lead somewhere very interesting indeed.

University of Dundee is not alone in initiating plans to support interdisciplinarity with real infrastructure. I have also been invited to lecture on this topic at York University in Toronto, which prides itself as having been founded 50 years ago on the very premise of interdisciplinary research. In February 2011, representing the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum, I addressed a number of the same issues in a lecture at Yale’s Peabody Museum. Later that year many of these points came up again at a closed international workshop in which I participated, convened by New York University and hosted by the British Museum — Re:Enlightenment Project.

Navigating Interdisciplinarity draws together knowledge and observations from my interdisciplinary work and experience at science institutions such as the Faculty of Health of University of Copenhagen, the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, the Science Department of the Natural History Museum, and art-science crossovers with the Wellcome Trust.

What then are some of the problems, and what is to be done? Here is an excerpt from my presentation at Dundee’s Shared Imagination event:

Everyone on an interdisciplinary team will have widely differing skills and methods that are in large degree opaque to the other members of the team. Very fundamental project activities and scheduling issues will not even be tabled for discussion at the project’s outset because they are so deeply embedded as to be invisible. This can lead to uneven expectations of each other, bad project management and schedule planning, limited knowledge exchange, projects which do not fulfil their full potential, frustration, anger, disillusionment.

Another challenge has to do with the uneven playing field between art and science in financial terms and in economic models. Even a life sciences lab that is underfunded is actually funded at levels of a much higher magnitude than that of the fine arts — including film and media.

Underinvestment in the project of culture and aesthetics has led to uneven development between the arts and the sciences. This has also forced huge differences in the basic economic models: science does not now start up its research activities without front-end investment, and art often only sees a return on its necessarily speculative investment at the end of its research, when there is a product.

This can mean that it is difficult to align resources in relation to cash flow, as well as to effect fundraising, across varying disciplines. In Universities, budgeting across departments, both for costs and the recovery of overheads, can be very difficult. Managing the sharing of limited resources such as technologies and admin support as well as other infrastructure, is complex across a campus. And yet waste occurs in silos; ineffective communication means shared interests are rarely identified.

For real breakthroughs, it is agreed that joint appointments are essential, and yet nigh on impossible to effect. When they are instated, it often means two full time jobs for the incumbent, whose work then falls between two stools, because REF-based management of research is divided along disciplinary units of assessment and not along the lines of the larger-scale ‘big questions’ that need to be addressed. This means a loss of identity and value both for the institution and the individual.

A further problem comes from the fact that with infrastructure comes bureaucracy. Science often labours under highly competitive conditions and almost unbearable scrutiny. It would surprise artists to know how difficult it is for scientists to access meaningful larger-scale resources and instruments. Detector time on X-Ray telescopes is lined up years in advance and is based on applications and peer judging that is incredibly exacting. If it is not easy to share this kind of infrastructural resource even within a discipline, how much more difficult to carve out the time for something experimental across boundaries, with little funding behind it and unpredictable outcomes?


There is much more to be said about how to overcome these problems, pragmatically and strategically. I was able to outline a few approaches that were specific to Dundee in the lecture and also in the ensuing day workshop. By way of inspiration, Navigating Interdisciplinarity ends with a quote from Hermes/The Northwest Passage by Michel Serres:

“It is the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, through the Great Canadian North. It opens, closes, and twists all through the immense arctic archipelago, all along a wildly complicated maze of gulfs and channels, of basins and straights, between the islands of Banks and Baffin. One enters it by the Davis straight and one ends up in the Beaufort Sea. The voyage is arduous, the openings rare and often blocked.” says Serres.

“It is a difficult trajectory, hampered with encumbrances, a true labyrinth of earth, water and ice. The very image of the crossing between the exact sciences and the human sciences. And it is not a path that is given once and for all, but must be built and discovered each time it is attempted. One wants to go everywhere, build a world where there is almost everything – mathematics, biology, philosophy, painting. The North-West passage is, in the end, the project of one’s entire life.”


This lecture has been videocast by DJCAD Exhibitions on their YouTube Channel.

Further Links: Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art Exhibitions (Curator Sophia Hao); University of Dundee Life Sciences (Dean of Research Professor Mike Ferguson)

[Image References: Chart of the Northwest Passage; coast guard icebreaker the Polar Sea in Arctic waters, United States Coast Guard; Martha Fleming speaking at Shared Imagination, Dundee; powerpoint slide from Navigating Interdisciplinarity lecture]

Split + Splice

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]


Visiting Professor, Faculty of Health, Copenhagen

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]

Consultant: Wellcome Trust

Consultant to the Wellcome Trust, London (2003 to 2004)

I have been a judge of the Wellcome Trust SciArt Research and Production Grants and also participated in the international development workshop exploring the form and direction of what was to become the Wellcome Collections exhibitions space in the Euston Road.  I contributed to the evaluation of the Medicine Man exhibition that took place at the British Museum in 2003 prior to its reworking for permanent installation in Wellcome Collections. The Wellcome Trust also sought my views in this period for a Discussion Group formulating grants policy in arts, public engagement, and medical humanities.


In 1996, the Wellcome Trust initiated an ambitious and forward-thinking funding stream to bring visual artists, film-makers, theatre practitioners, composers and musicians, choreographers and dancers and more together with their peers working in biomedical practice.  Though this was in the main a ‘public engagement’ activity for the Trust, it began to produce some very interesting artworks that begged as many important questions as they answered.  Granted, not all of what was produced under the short-lived title of sciart was very good — but then, there’s a lot of not terribly good science and not terribly good art out there already!

Sciart ran as a funding programme for a decade, and went through a period of partnership with Arts Council England, Scotland and the Gulbenkian Foundation before being wound down by Wellcome in 2006.  It was then absorbed into the general grants programme of the Trust.  The year I which I was a juror both for Research and Development and for Production Grants (2004), the programme was still run by Bergit Arends, who co-authored with her colleague Verity Slater the book Talking Back to Science: Art, science and the personal (Wellcome Trust, 2004).  Bergit is now Curator of Contemporary Arts at the Natural History Museum, where I met up with her again when I was working at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the NHM.

Later that year, the Trust led an international workshop with directors and curators from medical museums, broadcasters, artists and others to discuss new uses for the Wellcome Trust building on the Euston Road.  Updating The Wellcome Story: 183 Euston Road gave a clear picture of the Trust’s plans for what was to become Wellcome Collections, and it was an exciting few days in which exchanges helped to finesse and improve the project design and also the potential for partnerships of the centre.  I spoke on the practicalities, advantages and future development of working with artists in science museums and museums of medicine.*

That workshop was the first official working day of the Wellcome Collections’ new curator, James Peto.  James and I had first worked together on my project Open Book, which he curated in 1996 while he was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  We also worked together later in 2004/2005 as he straddled his new Wellcome Collections post and his final project at the Design Museum, where he had worked for almost a decade: I assisted James in the curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

Ken Arnold, who is now Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, directed and co-curated the exhibition Medicine Man. It first opened at the British Museum in June of 2003, while the buildings on the Euston Road were being constructed — and closed for reconstruction.  This first incarnation of Medicine Man was one of the most exciting exhibitions I have ever seen.  Between Ken’s deep knowledge of Henry Wellcome’s collecting practice, and the skills of Caruso St John applied to the exhibition design, a true sense of the collections emerged from the very high density of object display.

It was here that one felt both the enormity and magnitude of the collection, and an inkling of Wellcome’s thinking and his vision for it.  While making Atomism & Animism, I worked at Blythe House where the Science Museum keeps and cares for the remains of Wellcome’s collections; I can assure you that as installed at the British Museum, Medicine Man evoked the real thing.

Here is an excerpt from my written report about the exhibition:

I believe that the choices made for this exhibition’s contents and design were extremely sensitive and intellectually sound, and that the structure of Henry Wellcome’s collection both revealed and reformed itself like a crystal lattice around the organising principles of the show.

It is not a revisionist history of Wellcome’s collecting practice, but one which addresses the mind of the man himself in a way that evokes the intellectual context of his work in this domain, and by extension, how these thought patterns entered the more health-progressive and lucrative areas of his activities.

Echoes of the collecting model of the Pitt-Rivers collection can also be seen in the choice of the curators to use form as a teach-tool for contemporary visitors in the design of the exhibition. This is not just a museological trope or reference: Wellcome would have been very aware of the Pitt-Rivers Museum and it would have influenced his collecting and his rapport with material culture and the culture of health and healing the world over: several of the contributors to the catalogue reference this explicitly.

For the design of Medicine Man to incorporate Pitt-Rivers’ display principles is in fact a way in to the mind of Henry Wellcome. It also happens to be a display form accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of education or the language they speak: one can literally see the evolution of an instrument or an idea unfolding from one object to the next. Thus the curators and designers were able to leap from Wellcome’s mind directly into the mind of the visitor by organising the exhibition this way: it seems to me that this kind of communication is what the Trust is all about.



* I also gave this talk — Working With Artists in Science Museums — in 2007 at the Steno Museum, University of Aarhus, and am currently preparing it for publication.

Further Links:  Wellcome Trust; Wellcome Trust Sciart Programme Outline; Report; Medicine Man; Wellcome Collections; Caruso St John Exhibition and Museum Design

[Images references:  Mechanical arm (detail), Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum London (1850 – 1910); Installation of Medicine Man at the British Museum, design Caruso St John (2003)]

Le Musée des Sciences

Le Musée des Sciences (Montréal, with Lyne Lapointe, 1984)


This major site-specific installation — a ‘history of the body’ before its time — took place over the entirety of an abandoned beaux arts Post Office Building at 1700 Notre Dame West in the Little Burgundy area of Montréal. Using everything from the sorting room floor to the surveillance corridor,  from the Postmaster’s apartment to the coal chute, we subjected the building, medical history and museological convention to analysis. It was the second of the ‘Montreal triptych’ of large-scale projects Lyne Lapointe and I made in quick succession through the mid-1980s. Working for the first time with both history of science and with museological convention, this project and the research we effected towards it changed the direction of my practice forever.

It is for this project that I first read Foucault. And Feyerabend’s Against Method, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Baltrusaitis on perspective, Giedion on mechanisation, Didi-Huberman on La Salpetriêre, and Bernard Cohen’s then relatively new Albums of Science. Not to mention Gerard Turner on collecting microscopes, Brian Coe on the history of cameras, and Stillman Drake on Galileo. It is for this project that I first set foot, with Lyne, in the Wellcome Trust Library.



To situate Le Musée des Sciences in its intellectual time, it is worth noting that it opened in February of the same year that Volumes II and III of Foucault’s Histoire de la Sexualité were published for the first time. It would be another five years before ZONE Magazine’s Fragments for a History of the Human Body and Sander Gilman’s Disease and Representation; another decade before Jean Clair’s Paris exhibition, l’Âme au corps (1993).

That this project, as early as 1984, meshed a critical inquiry into the history of the body with analyses of the representational practices in which the body is bound up, including museological conventions, still seems astounding to me. That it was effected by artists on the periphery as a self-produced large-scale work involving an entire abandoned building even more so.

From the press release:

Le Musée des Sciences is … a rigorous analysis of the socioeconomic order carried out over the bodies which that order constructs. [It] confronts the body of men, made machine by a Cartesian anatomy and the Industrial Revolution, with the body-in-pieces of woman, a body which has resolutely refused to look like its portraits. But this work is not ‘new figuration’ — representation is as much an institution as is the scientific method. The privileging of ‘bodies’ of knowledge and their vested interests are equally questioned here, as is the orchestration of the ‘body’ politic through social services rendered in just such buildings as are post offices.”



It is important to understand the conditions in which this project was possible, conditions which range from Montreal’s francophone proximity to continental thought, to the number of empty buildings in North American cities, post 1970s stagflation. We were not alone in pioneering the occupation of public space through collective creative action: 1984 is also the year that Group Material — including friends Julie Ault, Doug Ashford and, later, Felix Gonzales-Torres — produced their first Timeline project, A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, at PS1 in New York.

Our projects were no less political, forms of feminism taking place in a register questioning cultural convention and aesthetics. All museum activities, from collecting and conserving to display and education, funnel towards acts of interpretation that are essentially representational, involving the conjugation of objects, fragmentary and rent from their original context, into a semblance of meaning outside that original context. With Le Musée des Sciences we sought to extend to, and fully encompass, museum practice within a group of cultural acts more readily familiar as ‘representational’.

Many artists have made museum parodies in their own studios. Some of us, as can be seen in Le Musée des Sciences, have sought to create alternative museums in highly charged spaces which are neither studio nor museum. Still others have parodied anthropological or natural history collections inside the confines of the fine art museum when they are given the chance. Another tactic is to drop artworks into non-art museum display contexts. This stream of work was one of which I was very aware, having participated tangentially in the development of the publication Museums by Artists (Bronson, ed., 1983) whilst working in distribution of Video by Artists at Art Metropole in Toronto.

Yet few had ventured into the science museum. In 1983, Lyne had an exhibition in Stuttgart (Kunstler Aus Kanada, Württembergischer Kunstverein) and we extended our stay in Europe by travelling to several cities in Italy, including Florence. Visiting the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (now the Museo Galileo) was the original impetus for the project which became Le Musée des Sciences. At the heart of the city which had been the centre of Renaissance art and science, this wonderful museum that was then still organised in displays which followed taxonomies that had actually emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries: it was pivotally inspirational in both form and content.

The chromatically ordered samples of geological materials on the top floor of the museum was still then arranged as a two-hundred year old teaching collection, and it presaged with great beauty a sense of so much of what colour would later be able to tell us about matter once Frauenhofer had invented the spectroscope. Several floors down, the extraordinary set of obstetrical phantoms tried to cover all possible positions of a baby inside the womb at birth.



This is the moment at which ‘anatomically correct’ comes to mean, as it will for hundreds of years, a realistic representation of a dismembered body — ostensibly so as to focus the medical mind on the area of interest. Row on row of life-size wax and terra cotta teaching models presented what appeared to be stumps of surgically removed legs and semi-intact upper torsos, a carefully circumscribed layer of skin, fat, muscle and uterine wall excised to admit the surgeon’s gaze.

Further, the formally trained eye could observe, stepping from one set of Enlightenment instruments to another merely by passing through a gallery doorway, the clear isomorphic rapport between the barrel of a small cannon and that of a large telescope. It was this cannon and this telescope which first drew me to Feyerabend’s Against Method.

Nowadays, the role of artist-curator is commonly acknowledged, and I have certainly in the intervening years held that position a number of times as I have moved deeper into the museum world. Perhaps less familiar is the gravitational pull I felt in making Le Musée des Sciences with Lyne in 1984: it was a pull in the other direction — I was becoming a curator-artist. In the previous large-scale site work that she and I had created together, Projet Building / Caserne #14 (1983), there was a clear demarcation of roles: I was billed as the curator. By the opening day of Le Musée des Sciences, I was no longer at all sure of that. It would be some years before I realised that it didn’t really matter what I called myself, and many years before it stopped mattering to other professionals.


Le Musée des Sciences (and other of our site projects) is fully documented in Studiolo : The Collaborative Work of Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe, by Fleming, Johnstone and Lapointe (Artextes, 1997). Alongside Le Musée des Sciences, the other two projects which form our ‘Montreal triptych’ are Projet Building / Caserne #14, (1983) and La Donna Delinquenta (1987).  I also later analysed a number of the methodologies and outcomes of Le Musée des Sciences in my doctoral project, From Le Musée des Sciences to the Sciences Museum (2004).

Further Links: Wellcome Trust Library; Group Material; Museums by Artists (Art Metropole, 1983)Museo Galileo: 80 years of Display

[Image References: all images are of Le Musée des Sciences by Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe (1984) with the exception of the second image on this page (Wellcome Trust Library Reading Room) and the fourth (Museo Galileo obstetrical models room, 1983). The third image on the page is of the working drawing with which we created the walk-on anamorphosis in the project.]