Doing history between research and public engagement

As my postdoc draws to an end, I wanted to spend a little time reflecting on what it is like doing historical research in a highly interdisciplinary environment like Medical Museion.

Since 2019, I have worked between Museion and the NFF Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR) as a postdoc on the project Body Time.  The moment I read the job description, I knew this would be an unusual role. The premise of the project was to study circadian rhythms in interdisciplinary perspective – working alongside the scientists who study these rhythms (chronobiologists) to think about its cultural, philosophical and historical implications. Exactly how that would look was to be left largely to the interests of the successful candidate. At the same time, the role was also going to focus on public engagement work, including contributing to public exhibitions as well as the production of a ‘toolkit’ for communicating circadian science with a broad audience. I had experience as both a researcher and a curator, and I was lucky enough to be appointed. And so, in the months before corona, I left my curatorial job in London and packed my bags for Copenhagen to take up this unknown challenge.

Looking back now, Body Time evolved in ways that I could not have possibly imagined – partly as a result of the classic wandering in the archives that all historians do, and partially because of the highly collaborative and interdisciplinary environment of Museion itself. I found myself working alongside not only scientists but also philosophers, anthropologists, STS scholars, artists, curators and conservators – all of whom have informed my work. And while it might be easy to see the public engagement projects I have worked on and my scholarly publications as something separate – to me, and I think to the other researchers who work at Museion, they are deeply entwined.

Artist Isabella Martin speaks about the Z-Time exhibition at Medical Museion, 2020
Artist Isabella Martin speaks about the Z-Time exhibition at Medical Museion, 2020, Image by Peter Stanners

One exciting challenge and opportunity of the postdoc has been collaborating with scientists as a historian. If you are yourself a historian, then you might know that for the most part, historians take a somewhat sceptical approach to contemporary science. Because of our own long view of the past, we are suspicious of any claims that scientists have now found out the ‘truth’ – all scientific endeavour is part of a long history of successes and failures, and scientific knowledge is always a cultural product. So how exactly can I do ‘serious history’ while also being informed by science? In the first instance, I just watched and listened to the scientists as they worked – attending lab meetings, observing experiments, and having curious conversations over coffee. I started to become aware of their ‘matters of concern’, as Bruno Latour would say – what questions drove them, where did they see their science contributing to society, what technical and practical challenges stood in the way of their work. I allowed myself to follow this associative way of thinking – opening up my interest into topics like sleep science, daylight savings time, and the careful scheduling of circadian experiments.

Circadian specimens labelled with Z-time in the freezer,
Circadian specimens labelled with Z-time in the freezer, author research photo

After working in this way for some time, I began to piece together a potential framework for how chronobiology might profitably inform the work of historians. In 2022, I published my paper ‘Rhythmic history: Towards a new research agenda for the history of health and medicine,’ in the history of science journal Endeavour. This is a framework for taking a broad view about bodily rhythms and health, which includes but is not restricted to, scientific histories of chronobiology. This proposed agenda would take inspiration from contemporary science to ask new questions about how rhythms were embodied in the past. I start from the scientific concept of the ‘zeitgeber’ to view circadian rhythms as existing between body and environment. I argue that the zeitgeber principal can be used to identify areas of historical interest related to changing medical, scientific, environment, and embodied perceptions of rhythmicity and health. These areas including eating, sleeping, light, temperature, and exercise. The aim is to find some middle ground between a constructivist history of medicine and the more biology-informed history of environment.

Rhythmic History, Endeavour 2022 screenshot
Rhythmic History, Endeavour 2022 screenshot

But historical work was just one element of my project here. While perhaps many early career scholars have to balance their research with teaching – at Museion, almost half of my time was spent contributing to public engagement. I think this is something very unique about the context of my postdoc at an institution where public engagement work is valued as much as traditional academic outputs. It is an environment where you are challenged to think in different ways about your research – exploring new ways of sharing your work with a broad audience. It can certainly be intimidating to step out of your own discipline and create meaningful stories for people other than your colleagues – but for me it has also been immensely valuable to my ways of thinking, as well as enjoyable.

Circadian rhythms are a particularly fun subject to talk about – we all have these daily rhythms and so in that way, it tends to be pretty easy to connect an audience with your subject matter. Are you a morning or an evening person? Do you have a hard time sleeping? When was the last time you were jetlagged? Do you wonder whether you need to optimise your timing of diet or exercise? These are all questions that bounce around in media discourse and which ultimately emerge from chronobiology. When we ask these questions, I find people are able to draw a link between their own lived experience and circadian rhythms, even if they might be unfamiliar with this scientific term. Part of the challenge of communicating about these daily rhythms is that they are at the same time so common sense, but the science is very complex and uncertain.

Time theme installation shot, The world is in you, copyright David Stjernholm
Time theme installation shot, The world is in you, copyright David Stjernholm

In my postdoc I’ve worked with a number of different approaches to communicate circadian rhythms from public events, to blogs, podcasts, exhibitions, and even a comic book. I am particularly proud of our 2021 exhibition The World is in You which explored how new and unfinished science is helping to reveal the entwined connections between body and world. I have been lucky enough to collaborate with artists and storytellers like Isabella Martin and Sofie Louise Dam – whose own creative practices have had a profound effect on my own work and thinking. In our comic Kronobiologies Verden, Sofie and I collaborated with a team of scientists to create an experimental approach to exploring chronobiology by following a sarcastic, night owl rhythms scientist named Amy through the history of circadian rhythms and her own research.

Extract from Kronobiologies Verden, copyright Sofie Louise Dam

This is just a very short insight into some of the ways I have been thinking and working in the last few years here at Museion. As I prepare to leave, I am really struck by what an unusual research environment it is at Medical Museion. Of course the research team delivers academic research, but we are surrounded by collections, colleagues from other disciplines, the public, scientists, and many other stakeholders who have an impact on our work. As a historian is can be sometimes a bit difficult to communicate the kinds of work we do here just because it is so highly interdisciplinary. But, I strongly believe that it is exactly this ineffable quality of the environment at Museion that allows all of the staff here to produce new, unexpected and boundary pushing outputs.

If you want to read more about my work and outputs from the Body Time project, please find a bibliography below.

Academic publications

Douglas-Jones, R. & Hussey, K. D. (2024) ‘Editorial Introduction: Laboratory Times,’ Time & Society.

Rogers, H. A., Hussey, K. D., Whiteley, L., Bencard, A., Gad, C., and Abrantes, E. (2023)‘Curating Complexities in Art, Science and Medicine: Art, Science and Technology (ASTS) in Public Practice,’ STS Encounters 15(2): 2–17.

Hussey, K. D. (2023) ‘Z-Time: Making and Feeling Time in the Chronobiological Laboratory,’ Time & Society, Special Section: Laboratory Times: 1-24.

Hussey, K. D. (2023) ‘‘Timeless Spaces: Field experiments in the physiological study of circadian rhythms, 1938–1963,’ History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 45(2): 17.

Bencard, A., Lillemose, J., Hussey, K. D. and Bjerregaard, M. (2022) ‘The World is in You: Documentation, Reflections, Lessons,’ Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen.

Hussey, K. D. (2022) ‘Rhythmic history: Towards a new research agenda for the history of health and medicine,’ Endeavour 46(4):100846.

Hussey, K.D. (2022) ‘‘The Waste of Daylight’: Rhythmicity, Workers’ Health and Britain’s Edwardian Daylight Saving Time Bills,’ Social History of Medicine 35(2): 422–443

Hussey, K. D. (2021) ‘‘Visceral consciousness’: The gut-brain axis in sleep and sleeplessness in Britain and America, 1850–1914,’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine 95(3): 350–378


‘Z-Time,’ Medical Museion, October – December 2020; March – June 2021

‘The World is in You,’ Kunsthal Charlottenborg, September – December 2021

‘Body Clocks’, NFF Center for Basic Metabolic Research, January – April 2023


‘Body Time is Planet Time,’ Bloom Podcast, 2022

‘The Invention of Daylight Saving Time’, Patented Podcast, 2022

‘Does the body know what time it is?’ Politiken Podcast, 2021

‘The search for a good night’s sleep,’ Vi Er Data, 2020


‘Laughing at (with?) Science,’ Medical Museion Blog, 2020:

‘The World is in You needs you! Introducing our audience survey,’ Medical Museion Blog, 2020

‘Saving the Sunshine: Health, Chronobiology and Daylight Saving Time, Medical Museion Blog,’ 2020,

‘Curating Time’, Medical Museion Blog, 2021

‘Timeless spaces: Cave experiments in chronobiology,’ Medical Museion Blog, 2021