Museion conceptrecent biomed

Representing Recent Biomedicine: A Museological Challenge

Her følger mit foredrag om Medicinsk Museion ved Dept of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, fredag den 1. oktober 2004: Thomas Söderqvist, “Representing Recent Biomedicine: A Museological Challenge” The topic I want to bring up today is one that I has been confronted with quite recently. I took the job as professor of […]

Her følger mit foredrag om Medicinsk Museion ved Dept of Medical History and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, fredag den 1. oktober 2004:
Thomas Söderqvist, “Representing Recent Biomedicine: A Museological Challenge”
The topic I want to bring up today is one that I has been confronted with quite recently.
I took the job as professor of history of medicine at the University of Copenhagen a couple of years ago. And it turned out that the Dean took for granted (although this wasn’t said in the announcement) that the job also included to be Director of the university’s medical history museum.
I had never been there, but had vaguely heard of the place, and rumours said it was in bad shape. No research, unprofessional staff, old-fashioned exhibitions, etc. So, first I bluntly rejected.
But the place also had opportunities. It’s a museum from the turn of the last century, housed in the former Royal Academy of Surgeons, which is a late 18th century palace in the middle of a large European city – in all some 60.000 square feet altogether. And the collections are stunning: An internationally famous microscope collections. A unique X-ray collection. A large and well-assorted obstetric-gynecological collection with its usual share of “babies in pickles”. Huge dentistry and pharmacy collections. A very fine ophtalmological collections. A surgical collection with many instruments back to mid-18th century. And not least a world-famous osteopatothological collection, largely medieval leprosaria, etc. etc. In all, some 250.000 object, many all the way back from the mid-18th century or even earlier. In addition some 60.000 photos and drawings, a large archive including complete hospital patient records back to late 18th century. And a 30.000 volume library.
So it’s one of Europe’s biggest and richest medical history collections, owned by the university. And that’s clearly an opportunity. But yet — the buildings were worn down. Only some 15% of the collections were registrered. There was only one professional museum person on the staff. Otherwise the place was run by 13 emeritus medical professors, each guarding his collections. Hardly any research to speak of. And the exhibits hadn’t been revised since the 1970s. They are ready to go to a museum of museums.
So I struck a deal with the Dean. I would accept the directorship if I got full political support to restructure the place, hire professional museum staff, and get funding for a graduate program. He accepted — and in the last 5 years we have re-organized the place into something we call a Medical Museion – to emphasize that we are a university department with collections and exhibitions.
There are two main concepts behind the Medical Museion (the website will not be up until the end of the year).
One concept is to bridge the gap between mainstream academic medical history and medical museums. The two kinds of institutions almost never go together. The gulf between them reflect a larger gulf between an academic research and teaching culture that emphasizes texts — and a museum culture that emphasizes material objects.
The other concept behind the Medical Museion is to focus both research, teaching, collecting and exhibitions on recent biomedicine, the last 50 years. This is not new when it comes to research — this is a very rapidly growing field of research.
But very few medical museums have taken the enormous advances in recent biomedicine in the postwar period seriously. In other words, to collect and exhibit the recent biomedical heritage.
Now, we’ve just received substantial funding for a research program to pursue these two concepts — we’re starting (next spring) a three year combined research and museum project announcing 6 PhD- and postdoc projects — where the point is that they shall combine research into late 20th century biomedicine with collecting from clinics and laboratories and doing exhibitions.
So that’s some of the history and concepts behind the Medical Museion. Now, I want to say a few words about how working with recent biomedicine in my view challenges the whole idea of what medical museums are.
Museum people don’t agree about much, but one thing they agree upon is that museums are institutions that deal with material culture. They collect and exhibit tangible objects.
In contrast to archival institutions that collect documents. And in contrast to iconographical collections that work with images. And in contrast to libraries.
Now, my point is that recent biomedicine destabilizes the notion of the museum. And there are two aspects of recent biomedicine that contribute to this destabilization:
First, the molecularization of medicine. Biochemistry and molecular biology involves (and I don’t believe this is an exaggeration) in a revolution in medical thinking and in basic biomedical research, which is beginning to have impacts on diagnostics and therpaeutical practice. E.g. gene therapy and molecular therapy.
The other aspect of biomedicine is digitalization which not only has changed research practices, but also therapy and hospital treatment drastically. If you have visited a neonatal ward or if you have been sitting with somebody who is dying in an intensive care unit – then you know that both are as digitalised as the cockpit in a Boeing 767.
Both these trends affect deeply what we mean by a museum “object”.
Medical and medical-history museum curators have usually not had any problems in defining objects — and what constitutes a good exhibition object. They love concrete, sensual and spectacular objects. All curators agree – good exhibitions objects are those that trigger the visitor’s emotions.
On page 1 are two typical “good” classical objects. They are made by easily recognizable material (metal). The look like familiar tools. Anybody can easily understand the function of them. You’re probably familiar with these forceps which were invented to aid the obsterician — or this lithoclast which was used to crush bladder stones.
These are medical museum objects which play on our fear of pain and evoke strong emotions. The lithoclast is extremely popular among our student museum guides when they try to catch the interest of a blaisé group of high-school students. “It was introduced the natural way”, the woman guide says, addressing the smartass in the group. He looks a little pale, and when she adds: “before anaesthesia”, he sometimes faints – at least he’s neutralized for the rest of the day.
All medical and medical-history museums love these and similar objects – slow, foot-driven dentist’s drills – siamese twins – amputation saws , etc.
But — today’s medical objects are neither concrete, nor sensual. Take this gene chip – here’s a “Human Genome U133A Array” från Affymetrix, which is said to analyze “the expression level of 18,400 transcripts and variants, including 14,500 well-characterized human genes”. It’s a really useful object in medical research and diagnostics today. But hardly something that evokes strong emotional reactions.
So – when we are going to create exhibitions about recent biomedicine, we have a problem. Biomedical research and technolgy fills more and more of our lives — from before the cradle almost to the grave — and medical science influences our lives infinitely more than it did when the lithoclast was used without anaesthesia.
But at the same time treatment has become less and less visible, less and less sensual. Apparatus are plastic cabinets filled with electronics and blinking diodes. The exterior doesn’t tell anything abut its function. It cild as well be a washing machine or a DVD-player – the only difference is that my washing machine is called Washomat-something, while the PCR-analyzer is called *Hewlett-Packard.
A consequence for medical museums of this development in biomedicine is that the limit between physical “objects”, “images” and “texts” is blurred. Take e.g. the PET-scanner (that builds on positron emission tomography)
The patient is injected with sugar molecules marked with an isotope that sends out positrons which are caught by a detector. The brain in the machine is a computer program which interprets the signals to a 3D-picture of the metabolism of the sugar in body. Like here in an Alzheimer patient brain.
But what’s “object”, what’s “image” and what’s “text” in the PET-scanner? The physical “objects” (the bed, the detector and computer hardware and the isotope molecules) do not make sense without the “image”. And the “image” is a representation of the signals from the isotopes — which in turn has been worked over by the “text”, i.e. the computer programme. And the most important “text” is the manual, which is much more complicated than the physical “object”.
So what are we going to show in an exhibition? The bed is not very exciting. The isotopes are invisible. And it’s not very meaningful to go to a museum to read a manual or thousands of text lines in a computer program. And the images are easier to download from the internet, and animate them on the computer at home. Why visit a museum at all?
The conclusion is that these kinds of biomedical “objects” are challenging the whole idea of the modern medical museum. It’s a problem we have to deal with when we are trying to build-up a new model for a institution that combines research, collections and the public understanding of medicine.