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Exhibiting Epistemic Objects

Many of the objects held by museums of science and medicine are significant because they have been used in the production of knowledge and scientific enquiry. This blog post discusses how we might display such objects in ways that draw on their potential to generate scientific knowledge as well as their cultural history and materiality. […]

Many of the objects held by museums of science and medicine are significant because they have been used in the production of knowledge and scientific enquiry. This blog post discusses how we might display such objects in ways that draw on their potential to generate scientific knowledge as well as their cultural history and materiality. Often exhibitions capture one or the other. They either show the original objects as part of a cultural historical display or present scientific insight by interactive exhibits or by importing scientific settings into museums. The thoughts below are part of an early foray into investigating and experimenting with exhibiting epistemic objects that started during the curation of the exhibition The Body Collected at Medical Museion.

The scientific object and the exhibition are both epistemic objects

Objects of knowledge – or epistemic objects – are objects such as collected specimens of natural history or pathology, measurement apparatus, instruments for producing or making phenomena visible, or representations such as maps or models. Common to them is that they have been part of particular material and historical processes of knowledge-production.
Interestingly, the exhibition itself may also be seen as an object of knowledge. It is a material artefact for displaying phenomena and producing knowledge (broadly defined) and is in this sense similar to the objects exhibited.
The question is whether it is possible to combine the particular knowledge producing potential of the scientific objects with that of the exhibition. This could lead to a more active engagement with the material objects and a move away from employing them as illustrations or representations. It would combine the cultural historical display with elements known from the science center because objects would be there both as particular cultural objects and as material sources of knowledge.
Many attempts have been made in exhibitions to offer museum visitors an experience of the scientific process in its particular setting. This lies behind the drive to exhibit e.g. interiors of a surgical theatre or laboratory. But rather than exhibiting the epistemic process as an object itself, it might be more fruitful to “translate it” into exhibition design.

Epistemic objects

The concept of “epistemic objects” draws on the work of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and his concept of “epistemic things” and experimental set-ups. In his analyses of experiments in molecular biology Rheinberger emphasises the materiality of the experimental process and that the objects of scientific enquiry – epistemic things – hover between material and conceptual entities: “Phenomenon and instrument, object and experience, concept and method are all engaged in a running process of mutual instruction” (Rheinberger, An Epistemology of the Concrete, 1997). One might say that the epistemic process of science is part of the object itself and it is this double nature that I wish to capture in exhibitions. Another important aspect of Rheinberger’s historic epistemology is that it treats knowledge as historically contingent and it thus captures both the historic specificity and the generation of scientific knowledge.
Rheinberger points himself to the possibility of exhibiting the epistemic process of science suggesting that eg modes of visualization from the scientific process may be employed in exhibitions. “How can”, he asks, “visualization modes … be fruitfully modified for making science and scientific thinking tangible?” (Rheinberger, “Making Visible. Visualization in the Sciences – and in Exhibitions?”, 2010). He furthermore emphasizes the need to exhibit the interconnectedness among instrumental technologies, scientific objects, and the corresponding forms of visualization by bringing them to bear on each other in the exhibition context.
The concept “epistemic object” is coined by Karin Knorr Cetina as a development of Rheinberger’s epistemic things (Epistemic Cultures 1999 and “Objectual practice” 2001). Epistemic objects are characterised as undetermined and incomplete relative to more solid everyday objects and in a continual process of being materially defined. My use of the term is slightly broader, but maintaining that the objects have a potential for further unfolding.
When exhibiting epistemic objects, the lesson to take from Rheinberger and Knorr Cetina is therefore that the objects are both nature and concept, that instruments, objects and vizualisations are connected and that the processes of materially defining the objects may continue in the exhibition.

How to exhibit epistemic objects

Simply put, the idea is to use the epistemic process by which scientific objects generate knowledge to communicate in the context of the exhibition. In the following this will be exemplified with set-ups discussed and developed in the process of working with the recent exhibition The Body Collected. This exhibition is particularly suited as one of its aims is to show how medical science has used human bodily matter to generate knowledge. Hence it combines a historical and an epistemic view.

Collection and dissection

Historically some scientific objects are “born” in museums. Collections of natural history and the preparations of sick organs from pathological museums were originally organized and accessed in exhibition cases. They were used to systematize knowledge and the museum was the instrument for generating knowledge together with techniques of preserving and dissecting. This makes it an easy case and in many museums we find that the historical displays have been recreated. In this way the objects are placed in their historical context while also displaying how they were used to generate knowledge by categorization (see for instance the handsome historical displays at Museum Vrolik and the image below from Medical Museion’s display of the Saxtorphean Collection).

Saxtorphske case
Display using old exhibition cases to display the Saxtorphean Collection of obstetric preparations. From The Body Collected at Medical Museion.

Ane Pilegaard’s design breaks the “skin” of the exhibition case. Created for Obesity: What’s the Problem? at Medical Museion (photo: Ane Pilegaard).
In Medical Museion we discussed going further than that by showing the method of dissecting in the exhibition design and by putting the technology of museum display itself on display. The former could be done by playing with opening layers in the display to show the surgical method of removing the outer layers of the body to free the structures inside (see image). The latter could be done by cutting through a historical exhibition case and thus putting the exhibition case as well as its contents on display. The idea is that rather than explaining the scientific process in a text it is expressed in through the exhibition design and highlighting the way that the objects themselves generate knowledge.


After the invention of the microscope the body was accessed by light, enhancement and enlargement. These ways of mediating microscope slides in the exhibition therefore enforces the way they were originally accessed. Moreover, it may be done in a way that works as an exhibition design rather than simply letting visitors looks into a microscope.
An inspiration for such a display was Micrarium at Grants Museum of Zoology where a collection of slides is exhibited backlit in a tiny room where all the walls are covered in slides (see image). This display beautifully captures both the collection as a source of knowledge and the way the slides were accessed through light.

Micrarium at Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London
Micrarium at Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London

Another set-up with which we will experiment is a projection of a microscopic image on the wall. When the museum guest moves in front of the image it will be enlarged and come into focus. In this way the body of the visitor engages with the image from the slide in a way that works in an exhibition context, but which mirrors the way slide was originally accessed by the doctor or scientist.

Technologies of modern biomedicine

The scientific processes of modern biomedicine are recognized as hard to exhibit in a meaningful way. The technologies surrounding the objects of scientific enquiry have grown and they usually consist of grey boxes with electronics that reveal little of their function. This, however, is a central aspect of biomedicine. The objects studied are always mediated through layers technology and are in a sense created by this technology. An exhibition set-up that might offer a material sense of this epistemological point would be to place the scientific object under investigation – eg a blood sample – at the back of a wall of equipment and allow the visitors to see the sample in the distance through a narrow peek hole in the technological devices stacked up in front.

Integrating culture and science

Many more displays may already be in existence that mediate the epistemological practice of science in the displays of objects without falling into creating dioramas of scientific environments – if the readers know of any, please come with suggestions in the commentary. In practice, however, the majority of exhibitions fall very much on one or other side of the divide of cultural or scientific displays. In medical museums both styles are often found in parallel: A scientific display of pathological collections and a cultural historical display of the oldest preparations or the surrounding cultural history.
But since objects of knowledge or epistemic objects are very much hybrids of culture and nature more attention can fruitfully be given to communicating both together. Often the implications or incomprehensible aspects of science are mediated through art, but here I advocate for a middle ground. Not pure science, history or art, but inventive, creative displays that materializes the scientific process.
There was once faith in museums as places where displays objects could generate knowledge their visitors. Justified doubt in this preposition has lead to displays where the objects play very minor roles. My point here is to try to keep the faith in objects, but to develop display practices to mediate the intertwining of object and practice, of nature and culture in museums of science and medicine.


These ideas were developed in the process of curating The Body Collected at Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen, and as part of the research project on museum communication Prism supported by the Ministry of Culture and in collaboration with the National Gallery of Denmark, The Royal Library and Trapholt. I am grateful for the inspiration and comments from my colleagues in these projects in particular PhD candidate and designer, Ane Pilegaard.