In the spirit of this weekend’s workshop It’s Not What You Think in Copenhagen, I am posting a few observations from my visit to the Medical Museion last April.
The trip originated from a discussion about a contemporary museum for the blind in Kaunus, Lithuania and what we (the sighted) could learn from an institution that devoted all its energies towards such a radical shift in visitor experience. One of the high-lights of my April visit, therefore, was a tour by Jan Eric Olsén and Emma Peterson to the former Danish Museum of Blind History.
The blind collection was once part of a historic teaching and therapy collection for blind students dating back to 1811. The Medical Museion acquired the entire collection in 2011, and it has just been moved from the basement of the current Danish Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Hellerup (just outside Copenhagen) to the museum’s new storage facilities.
The Blind Institute is a low, sprawling building with long corridors lined with playful, multi-layered touch murals. We experimented with the walls and slowly made our way into a basement museum (now closed), and then we passed an entrance hallway with fairly traditional historical labels and some curious artifacts.
We then entered what could only be called the Pompeii of blind pedagogy – rooms of objects and instruments that had been part of a creative and ambitious effort to teach blind children subjects such as biology, art history, mathematics, literature and manual skills and crafts.
It is a collection with few equals in the world. We looked at many recognizable items that the educators had bought, adapted or made for tactile learning. There were large insects and plants for learning natural history; there were globes for learning geography; there were specialized technologies for writing and calculating.
The visually stimulating environment, however, seemed to dampen the real story here – the essential role of touch in this community. In the spirit of a demonstration for curators, developed by Thomas Söderqvist and Jan Eric Olsén in 2007, I shut my eyes and proceeded to examine a number of objects by hand. Jan Eric and Emma happily provided an assortment of challenges.
I post here an excerpt of my ten-minute examination of a plaster bust and my struggles to describe and make sense of it. My favorite part comes near the end when I recognize two nostrils and with them a sense of the bust’s sudden and surprising tactile symmetries. The exercise was not about how inadequate I was at tactile examination, but rather the opposite – how tactile processes are so deeply ingrained, so taken-for-granted, that I had no way to articulate them, get distance from them and think about them. This was liberating. After the bust examination, I was in a room filled with the hidden experiences and culture of touch, making and learning, a vital lesson for work in any collection.
My entire week last April was about experiencing the familiar in new ways. I had the privilege of participating in the opening of Lucy Lyons’s exhibition Experiences of Ageing,where we speed-sketched everyday objects and technologies related to ageing. Instead of passively enjoying Lyons’s exhibition, we were able to comprehend actively the beauty and dignity of these common items.
In the second session, following the lead of artist Mette Bersang, participants photographed overlooked spaces and features throughout the museum. Again, we discovered value in unexpected places. In the next session we explored “fragility” through Joanna Sperryn Jones’s ‘Breaking is Making’. The latter included a visit to the storage room with medieval skeletons from the Æbelholt monastery, followed by the breaking of Jones’s intricately casted, bone-like plaster twigs. The Ageing event was a model for what museums can do best by combining collections, visitors, exhibitions and a unique museum space into a transformative experience.These activities derive from a diverse, talented community at the Medical Museion that actively engage their proximate and challenging collection. My guide through the collections, Ion Meyer, spoke regularly about the artifacts and their relations to other artifacts, the unique spaces in the Museion building complex, and the events and exhibitions that take place there. Each object can be seen in the material, medical or collection context, but of equal importance is the immediate presence and multiple potentials for display.
You can see this pre-occupation in the Balance and Metabolism exhibition, which has a strong selection and arrangement of artifacts that reflect on the relations and tensions between these two themes in the collections.
At the Medical Museion these approaches have seamlessly moved into contemporary collecting and display. Thomas Söderqvist and Mikael Thorsted‘s installation Genomic Enlightenment illustrates in a simple, powerful presentation of suspended beadchips the sublime within everyday laboratory genomics. Installations and contemporary art often point to new ways of looking at the cultures of science and medicine far better than we do in science museums.
I thoroughly enjoyed bringing these issues and observations together in discussions with Thomas. There is a collective focus at the Medical Museion to take seriously the immediate presence of artifacts, the surprising insights that follow, and the ways we can share these experiences with the public. What emerges is a museum devoted to the direct, creative and unpredictable dynamic between visitors and a collection.