Hidden Stories. What do medical objects tell and how can we make them speak?

Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité, Charitéplatz 1, 10117 Berlin
Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke, Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité
13.09.2012 - 15.09.2012
Schnalke, Thomas

16th biannual conference of the European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences

Medical history collections, depots, and museums deal with objects in many ways. These items are a mystery. They present strangely curved and shiny surfaces. They perform in all different shapes, materials and colours. And they are quiet. They usually don’t talk. But, and this is our chance and challenge, ideas and concepts had been inscribed into their physical make. Medical theories and practices as intricately mixed epistemic processes had found their specific materialisations in the defined structures of such things. Over the times of their preservation they might have lost their primary functions, won secondary ones, but more crucial: They have gained meaning for which we can seek, if we decide to take these objects as serious sources for our work as historians of medicine, science, technology, culture, art, humanities etc.

What we have to do is asking for the “text” in the object, i.e. sometimes a real text in, with or around the thing (may this be only a code, a chiffre or a number), or a “subtext” somehow embedded in the shaped materials implicitly or connected with the object but detached from it and stored elsewhere, as in added files, fascicles or publications. With the clues and information we get from there we can move on to reconstruct the object’s context. Only within this context, the object begins to speak. We can tell its story and biography.

The conference will focus on objects, asking always for the hidden “texts” and “subtexts” on two different paths—a more practical and a conceptual one:

1. Hidden stories. What do medical objects tell?

We ask for papers that really focus on one medical object from your collections, depots or show rooms. Please slip into the role of a Sherlock Holmes to solve the case of this very object, i.e. by observing and describing the thing accurately, looking for clues (“texts”) and additional information (“subtexts”) and presenting your spiral analysis and interpretation around the item, thus telling us the full object story. You may chose any medical object of your personal interest—an ancient mask, medieval blood letting device, a scientific kymograph or a modern gene sequencer—from any time, culture and geographical zone. The only aim we ask you to keep in mind is to show us how far you get with your object-centred research, how far you can draw your interpretation surely consulting secondary archival material and relevant literature. Please also reflect on the limits of this approach.

2. How can we make our objects speak?

Here we ask for papers that reflect on a more conceptual base on how we can deal with objects in three different arenas:

Research: Medical objects and collections form a unique source in performing research on various topics in the history of medicine and the sciences. What prerequisites and infrastructures do we need to study our objects effectively? What are innovative modes and approaches in a material culture of performing research on, with and around our objects? What forms of networking and funding do we need to support an object-centred research? What are adequate and new formats of publication for our object studies?

Teaching: Medical Objects and collections offer a unique chance for visual and haptic forms of teaching in many fields. Can you share your thoughts and experiences on this field with us? What are the features, values, and potentials of an object-based teaching? What are possible limits here (delicacy of objects, climate, access, etc.)? What formats of object-based teaching have been tried out (best practice) or ought to be developed further towards a better training in the medical (historical) fields? What links of object-based teaching to research and public outreach have been built up and tried out with what results?

Presenting: Medical Objects and collections form the core items for our exhibits. What do we want to achieve with our object presentations? What is the very nature, what are the features of exhibitions in our fields? Whom do we want to reach? What are good and innovative formats to make our objects speak and perform for a wider public in our showrooms? What connections with the arenas of research and teaching are possible and sensible? What is the status of an object-based thematic exhibition in our own eyes, in the minds of our external audiences, including the general public and the scientific community?

To fuel the discussion we follow the idea of pre-circulating extended abstracts plus a short presentation (10 mins!) of the core issues in the Berlin conference. Beamer and laptop will be provided for Power-Point-Presentations. The language for abstracts, talks, and discussions will be English.

We ask you to hand in an abstract (maximum 700 characters) on a topic relating to one of the above-mentioned issues together with a title, your name, the name of your institution (if you are attached to any) and your contact data (preferably e-mail address) until 31 October 2011 to thomas.schnalke@charite.de. A programme committee will select from the abstracts to compose a hopefully inspiring programme. If your contribution was chosen, you will be asked to work out and hand in an extended abstract (2 to 5 pages) until 15 May 2012. All papers will be put together in one pdf-file and sent out to all participants in time before the conference starts in Berlin on 13 September 2011. We will ask the participants to have read the papers, so that a short presentation (10 mins!) will be enough to focus on the core arguments.

Thomas Schnalke, Berlin


Thomas Schnalke

Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité
Charitéplatz 1, 10117 Berlin
0049 (0)30 450 536077
0049 (0)30 450 536905


Hidden Stories. What do medical objects tell and how can we make them speak?, 13.09.2012 – 15.09.2012 Berlin, in: H-Soz-Kult, 01.07.2011, <www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-16813>.
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