The program committee of the Society for the History of Technology 2008 Annual Meeting has kindly accepted my proposed paper on ‘Biomedicine, Aesthetics, History, and Garbage: Engagements with the materialities of recent medical technology’. The conference will take place in Lisbon on 10-14 October and marks the second and final leg of the celebrations of SHOT‘s fiftieth anniversary. The program comimittee made a call for papers “that concern the history of technology as it may or ought to be practiced in the future. Papers or sessions devoted to the question of how we shall write the history of technology in the future are particularly encouraged”.
I thought the activities at the Medical Museion, especially our attempts to integrate the historiography and museology of recent biomedicine as well as our interest in contemporary medical technology, might have something to offer in this respect, and I am really exited to be able to make this argument at the meeting in Lisbon. My proposal runs as follows:
Current medical science is inseparable from developments in analytical instruments and information technology. Historians have long taken account of this and have produced a range of studies on subjects like PCR-machines, visualisation technologies, genetic engineering, and biobanking. Yet for all their pervasiveness in the way medicine (in the clinical as well as in the research field) is carried out today, such recent technologies have only in very limited number made it into medical or science museums. The result is that historians who wish to engage directly with the materialities of contemporary medicine as part of their research do not have instruments, machines, and utensils as readily at hand as they often have when looking at earlier periods.
The proposed paper presents experiences gained at the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen in relation to the acquisition of recent biomedical technologies, and points to the challenges faced by historians and museologist who wish to collect such objects. Here, the minuscule, virtual, and intangible nature of many of the important processes in contemporary medical science poses one particularly important set of problems. The process of curating is described, and the relations between curating and more traditional ways of historical writing is discussed.
Activities at the Medical Museion have actively tried to incorporate attention to the aesthetics and design aspects of medical technologies. Engaging with technologies along these lines have allowed material aspects to play a more prominent role in the historical analyses carried out, and has led to considerations of how the visual and tactile experiences of objects can feed into historical writing. In that way, experiences at the Medical Museion point towards new ways of writing the history of medical technologies, at the same time as it begs questions about how to incorporate the sensual and material into a historiography traditionally concerned primarily with meaning and interpretation.
I look forward to receiving comments and to get in touch with others working with similar problematics. If anyone is interested in joining up for a session, you are very welcome to contact me.