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Moving beyond recognition — how to make sense of recent medical artefacts?

Posted Oct 07 2008 7:17pm

Camilla’s post about Robert Wilson’s recent lecture at Stanford reminded me of  David Pantalony’s essay in the July issue of the History of Science Society Newsletter:

Why does a control panel for a computer from 1950 attract several viewers in the architecture and design galleries of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, while similar objects rest unnoticed in storage rooms and science museums around the world?

Referring to Joshua Taylor’s  Learning to Look (1981), David reminds us that we too often stop considering objects as soon as we have recognized them. Putting them in other surroundings (like the control panel in  MOMA ), however, makes it easier to reconsider them. Thus, the main challenge with recent technological artifacts, David points out, “is to prod researchers, the public, and students to move beyond recognition, and to stimulate alternative perspectives and inquiry”.

One way of doing this is to teach history classes about material history. David shares his experiences from teaching an artifact-based historical seminar for University of Otttawa students at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (where he works as a curator in physical sciences and medicine). He begins the artifact sessions´— which take place in the aisles of the storage facilities — by asking the students to examine the basic properties of the artifacts: ”materials, colors, finish, markings, modifications and manufacturing labels”, followed by questions about their history, design, and function. Then follows more analytical questions about the identity of objects and their aesthetic qualities, etc:

The key to this exercise is a careful and wide-ranging interrogation of artifacts. The more the students examine, the more questions appear. With persistent questions, they begin to transcend the traditional narratives determined by the artifact’s name and classification. They start thinking critically about specific features and how these features represent choices and context of makers and users. Where there is choice there is culture, context, and history. Why these kinds of markings? Why this construction? Why this style of container? Why this kind of component over another? Why this kind of material?

The cultural analysis of artifacts requires students to ask about “hidden beliefs, values, associations, and meaning”. They also learn to examine artifacts from a different culture, for example, contrasting Western post-war medical technology with healing artifacts from aboriginal cultures.

Not only are David’s experiences useful for curators in sci-tech-med museums — they are also an inspiration for those of us who try to integrate university teaching with museum work. Read the whole essay here.

PS: David sends a nod to the discussions on this blog about the use of MRI scanners in exhibitions; see Søren’s post here and Hans’ post here.

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