Arriving for this two day workshop entitled ‘Its Not What you Think: Communicating Medical Materialities’, my most visceral encounter was with the weather. The sub-zero temperatures blowing directly from Russia turned Gothersgade into an easterly wind tunnel as I trudged along from my hotel the Medical Museion, which is located near the pretty port of Nyhavn in Copenhagen. The workshop was has been put together by Louise Whiteley and Adam Bencard. Louise is Assistant Professor in Medical Science Communication at Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen, and Adam is also an Assistant Professor there, and at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Centre for Basic Metabolic Research, which was sponsoring the workshop.
As Adam said in his introduction, the context for the workshop was the ‘material turn’ in humanities and social sciences, and the desire to bring this interest in ‘the thinginess of things’ into a museum context specifically dealing with the things of medicine. Adam and Louise had attracted a very diverse group of scholars, museum practitioners, artists, philosophers, science communicators – and one clinician (that was me). The workshop was designed to create maximum time for discussion with the clever idea of having four themed sessions kicked off with 3-4 10 minute ‘stimulus presentations’ to get them going. As well as this, we spent some time getting our hands on some medical artefacts in the backrooms of Medical Museion.
On of the key themes that come out in our discussions was ‘to label or not to label’? Do artefacts in museums need labels, what should be written on them, and what force do these labels have on the reader? Personally, I always find it frustrating in a museum if there is insufficient information to help me to spend time interacting with an object. As a visitor I crave information. But my decidedness on this point was destabilised by this discussion and by a slide shown by John Wynne, a sound artist and researcher. John showed us a picture of a row of objects which I immediately felt a strong desire to grasp and touch.
It was not clear what they were, but they looked smooth and shiny, and as if they would fit snugly into the palm of the hand and that your fist could close pleasingly around them. In fact, the next slide revealed that they were a collection of John’s father’s hearing aids. Instantly, my desire to reach out and hold them disappeared! Without the labelling, I learned, my relationship with these objects would have been quite different.
I realise that in using the word ‘relationship’, I am entering into the stormier waters of our workshop. In the final session, Thomas Söderqvist challenged us with three key points: ‘Things do not talk’, ‘there are no hidden stories’, ‘objects do not do anything; they may have effects but the effects are the results of our reactions to them’. He insisted that it is the wonders of human imagination that enable objects to appear to have agency in the world. In this view, therefore, the idea of having a ‘relationship’ with an object is absurd as the object cannot ‘relate’ back. This set a few hares running amongst the audience, especially when Claire Jones, one of our close colleagues from the Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities, got up and started wielding a fearsome, long, rectangular blade that she explained was a ‘brain knife’. In grasping the knife, Claire’s ‘relationship’ with it was clear, and it was also clear that the object she held, and demonstrated, could change her in that her repeated demonstration of its action in cutting transverse slices through a brain was transforming her into someone with hands that knew how that was done.
I do not think we came to any conclusion on whether the objects had agency in the world, but this workshop has not only deepened my thinking about how objects may have effects, but also extended my notion of what those ‘objects’ might be. At the end of the first day of the workshop, we were treated to a public lecture by Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, at the University of Western Australia. Oron is an artist, researcher and curator who has worked on tissue engineering projects such as ‘victimless meat’ and ‘victimless leather’. These are highly political objects that have provoked controversy and debate, no least because of their ironic naming, but also because they are living tissue.
This was a key learning point for me from these extraordinarily stimulating two days. For most of our time were seated in space which had started as a dissection theatre for the training surgeons of the city in 1787. We came into contact with specimens that had been used in the teaching of physicians and surgeons for decades, if not centuries. In modern medicine, however, we are no less acquisitive about human tissue, only now we store it in living form as tissue or cell culture, or in biobanks. I realised from looking at the dissected and displayed surgical specimens how powerful a role these objects might have played in sustaining surgeons in their practice of cutting out disease. Perhaps, in our modern trend towards the acquisition and display of living tissues, these vital ‘objects’ might start to exert a similar power on treatments that in the future will depend upon the regeneration of the object of closest concern to us all: our own bodies.