Last Thursday we held the first event in our new series Body | Medicine | Object. The inaugural event was entitled Making balance bodies: From leeches to pills (read more in Danish here), and explored different understandings of what it means to be healthy and in balance, and how im-balance is treated.
Some 65 people turned up to meet three practitioners representing different parts of the medical world, both past and present, and to encounter some of the objects they might use. ">Morten Skydsgaard from the Steno Museum, Helle Johannesen from University of Southern Denmark, and Bente Klarlund Pedersen from Rigshospitalet presented humoral, alternative and biomedical understandings of the body respectively, and shared objects including leeches, gold painted acupuncture models and gene chips.
As illustrated in the video trailer below (thanks to Astrid Møller-Olsen), objects that could be handled were passed around to the audience, including acupuncture needles, affirmative sentences printed on slips of paper, 19th century bloodletting cups, and contemporary muscle biopsy kits. These moments created a frisson in the audience, seeming to turn peoples’ attention not only more towards the objects of medical practice, but also more towards each other and to the possibility of dialogue with the speaker. But what kind of close encounter was this?
Our aim in the event series is to experiment with ways of ‘letting the objects out of their cases’, to enrich the (embodied) ways visitors can encounter them, and through doing so to explore the material culture of medical science rather than just discussing the ideas and issues behind it. At our staff meeting this week we discussed how far the event had achieved this aim, and came up against some of the knotty perennials that plague any attempt to cultivate a ‘senses on’ approach to museum objects and to contemporary science, and also raised some more specific questions to consider for future events:
Protection vs. Proximity
The objects we handed around to the audience were almost all contemporary, disposable items – Adam Bencard purchased the acupuncture needles locally, and we spent a happy twenty minutes pulling apart the individual needles from their perforated partners and exploring the weirdly springy qualities of the few whose packets we accidentally tore into – a very different kind of preparation to the curatorial team helping us to find some bloodletting cups that were in a stable enough condition to be carefully handled.
For future events, we want to work even more closely with curators to find stable objects from the collections, to prepare and practice handling procedures, or to find duplicate objects that don’t have a unique representative function and can thus be handled more freely. I think we should also consider raising this question with the audience – opening up the black box of the event as well as the glass case of the museum, and inviting people to discuss together when touching, smelling, even tasting valuable objects, are worth the possible risks or changes to the objects these encounters might bring.
Featuring Speakers, not Objects
We were very grateful to our speakers who found time in their busy schedules to share both their expertize, and entertaining personal anecdotes such as Morten’s use of thermal leggings to restore humoural balance when suffering from a cold, or the year Helle explored every kind of alternative therapy she could. However, as someone pointed out in our evaluation meeting, an artefact of having well-known speakers is that we tend to foreground them – we introduce the speakers, who bring with them illustrative objects or ‘props’; we structure the presentation around the themes the speakers represent, rather than around object qualities or histories.
In our May event, we’ll be foregrounding the objects involved in the often-hidden process of turning spit or blood samples into genetic predictions, rather than featuring particular speakers, and it will be interesting to see whether this shifts attention.
Words as Objects
Another observation at our evaluation meeting was that the most effective close encounter – if measured in terms of audience liveliness – was actually with words; when everyone was invited to pull an affirmative sentence such as “I have enough of everything in my life” or “I am patient with others” out of a brown envelope, and was asked to say it aloud.
This led to much laughter and discussion, and I think also reminded us that texts can be creatively explored as material objects – people seemed to relax their sense of embarrassment a little when asked to hold the sentence against their forehead whilst saying it; making a physical gesture that grounded (or perhaps distracted from) the exotic openness of the words. Conversely, it reminded me that wordless responses to objects such as a bloodletting cup or pickled leeches also contain within them resonances of stories, phrases, linguistic ideas.
More broadly, this raises the question of how we handle words; to foreground material qualities perhaps we should try to focus on speech as a way of expressing and sharing sensuous experiences, holding back on the giddy pull of our shared passion for stories and ideas we associate with the objects. But this is hard – seeing objects ‘as props’ is so enmeshed in our ways of speaking, and it’s hard to find an alternative without slipping into the tempting anthromorphic trap of talking of objects as speakers.
Who are we reaching and how?
If getting closer to objects can be done more effectively with 20 people, would it matter that fewer are involved? We can of course pursue wider online dissemination, but as Ane Pilgaard Sørensen raised in her recent blog post, this argument is particularly tricky when we’re trying to disseminate materiality. Our next event is a hands-on, art workshop for 20 people, and we’ll be making a longer video piece for the website – a chance to explore this question a little further.
Towards a Taxonomy…
We’ll be continuing to evaluate the events here, and are keen to hear feedback from anyone who attended these or related happenings at other museums. I’ll also be reporting on a developing ‘taxonomy’, sketching out some axes for kinds of material encounter, the constraints they impose, the effects they have, and the communication goals they are associated with…
Sensuous, close-up meetings with objects of course have many precedents in museum contexts, from Victorian displays of industrial might to Science Center shows for children – but the goals are very different. Knowing what our goals are, for each individual event, is essential to evaluating the weirdly intangible object of ‘what happened’.
We should ask, each time, whether trying to achieve more fully embodied responses to objects is intended to get people closer to the process of science, more critical about how it works, or more excited and engaged with its power? Is it about the individual objects, their role in a collection, what they signify in history, or about cultivating sensuous, embodied skills more generally?