Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Last night, former NASA Astronaut Jeff Hoffman graced Leicester with his presence. It is not the first time he has come to lecture here, but it is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to see him speak. Naturally, it was enough to drag me out in the cold, dark wind of last evening!
The lecture hall was so packed, they were forced to change to the Peter Williams Lecture Theatre at the last moment, and even so, there weren’t many seats going spare! It was nice to see many young people in the audience. One sat in front of me, an adorable young boy, with his father, and was extremely well behaved the entire time. It turned out his father is an astrophysicist here and was eager to thank Hoffman for the work he and his team did to fix and upgrade the Hubble Telescope in the 1993.
It’s likely many of you have never heard of Jeff Hoffman. I was fascinated growing up by the US Space Program and so I kept a keen ear tuned to missions and astronauts. When I was ten I met Roberta Bondar (Canada’s first female astronaut in space) and decided I wanted to be an astronaut! Of course, reality soon set in and I ended up a Humanities student for my life instead, but there is something about that childhood fascination with space. Hoffman gave a compelling lecture on it last night.
I love to listen to people who are passionate about their work. Last night covered a range of topics about space flight, from a very good introduction to the US program back to before the Moon Landing and through the current state of affairs where NASA is dependent largely on Russia. There were more than a few interesting points brought up. Not the least of which was, in the early days when Russia started offering rides up to space to other countries, the going price was about $20-30 million a seat. Now they charge the US $65 million each! Hoffman made a valid point, however, well within the current economic climate, that even buying 5-6 of those seats a year is still a great deal less than the average £2 billion NASA was spending on the Shuttle Program every year.
He spoke in depth on the Constellation Program that has been, in North America, a point of issue. I was so pleased to hear Hoffman lay out the details and explanations in a very easy to follow way. When it comes down to it, there is simply not enough money to fund the idea, and this has lead to NASA’s reshuffling in recent years, and the last shuttle launch this autumn.
Much of Hoffman’s talk was on the future of space flight and the many, many private companies that are reaching for the stars. It is a mark of humanity that so many people are obsessed with the Heavens, but fascinating already to see how much work is being accomplished. Of course, the obvious companies were named: Space X and Virgin Galactic (which had its own groundbreaking announcement last night: http://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog/historic-day-for-virgin-galactic). There were many smaller companies, however, that are achieving some truly amazing things. One has already engineered the ability to lift off and land the same craft. It’s like watching a science fiction movie, except it’s real! The ability to reach space has already been achieved, and now companies are pushing towards reaching stable orbit. For now, NASA is hopeful that these US firms will be able to supple the craft to the International Space Station. By giving up the Shuttle Program, of course, the US is now entirely dependent on Russia for transportation. They are hopeful the private sector can provide that soon, at least to ferry supplies. The US’s own plan for the future of the Station does not pass 2020, but this will still have given researchers a good 10 years up there.
Hoffman, now an MIT Professor, is clearly intrigued by the future that is coming. Already, private citizens have been up in space and if Virgin or any of the others manage to achieve their technology, many more people will follow. A seat on Virgin Galactic’s craft retails for only $200,000! I’ll put it on my bucket list.
The lecture ended on a beautiful note, a question about when we might reach Mars. Hoffman was realistic in his answer, though slightly whimsical when he stated that he had always believed it would be in his lifetime, thought he reality had changed. He was very clear in his belief, however, that one day, we would. We landed on the mood 42 years ago. We can reach Mars one day too.
Today I feel hopeful. Following yesterday’s announcement that CERN may just have had a glimpse into the Higgs Boson particle (and might find it definitively by year’s end), there is no doubt the future will be full of fascinating discoveries and a much greater understanding of both ourselves and the universe we live in.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Thursday, December 08, 2011
Brown Bag Seminar 7th December 2011
‘Past, Present and Future of Medical Museums'
Dr. Samuel J.M.M. Alberti
"Though reared upon the base of outward things, structures like these, the excited spirit mainly builds . . . all Promethean thoughts of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats all jumbled up together, to compose A Parliament of Monsters."
--From Wordsworth's The Prelude
Using the Hunterian Museum (London) as primary exemplar, Dr. Samuel J.M.M. Alberti spoke on the subject of the past, present and future of medical museums collections. Previously holding a joint post between the University of Manchester Centre for Museology and the Manchester Museum, Dr. Alberti is currently the Director of Museums and Archives The Royal College of Surgeons of England. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles, most notably including The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Nature and Culture: Objects, Disciplines and the Manchester Museum and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons Guidebook. It is difficult to think of anyone better qualified to guide a shared exploration of the subject of the historic role of medical collections in practical, social and aesthetic application.
Dr. Alberti began the seminar with a review of the general history of medical collections in Britain, most specifically the Hunterian collections. He then used that review as a basis for the discussion of current practice at the Hunterian, London. He finished his discussion with an exciting ‘preview’ of some of the exhibitions currently planned for next year before gently fielding questions.
Prior to the Apothecary Act of 1815 the development of medical collections was driven by curiosity and prestige. Thereafter, it was required by law that those professing themselves medical practitioners must have taken qualification in anatomy, botany, chemistry, materia medica, and ‘physic’. It was the beginning of medical licensure and created the necessity of access to medical museum collections for instructional purposes.
The Hunterian is an excellent example of the kinds of medical collections critical to the development of qualified medical practice in the nineteenth century. An initial discussion of ‘The Hunterian Museum’ is potentially confusing in that there are several. All of the ‘Hunterians’ are arguably the product of rivalry between the notorious Hunter brothers, William (the elder) and John (the younger) Hunter. Each of these men were avid collectors and each of them started more than one museum, using the family name. John Hunter placed his collections at two venues: London and Glasgow. There is also a ‘Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery’ at the University of Glasgow, a collection founded by William. Dr. Alberti’s ‘Hunterian’ collection was founded by John Hunter and is housed in London.
Although the Hunterian and its founder were the primary focus of discussion, during his introductory review Dr. Alberti also mentioned other historical ‘luminaries’ including: Frederick Knox (and his infamously unethical brother Robert), Richard Owen and Arthur Keith. He also briefly mentioned Gunther von Hagens’ plastination process and the popularity of the Body Worlds exhibitions. The Hunterian currently includes some of von Hagens’ work for teaching purposes. He concluded the review with an introduction of the ‘Post-medical’ museum (a museum that must meet the needs of both the general public and the medical profession).
A particularly compelling part of the seminar was the mention of Charles Byrne. The story of Charles Byrne ‘The Irish Giant’ presents one of the most powerful ethical studies available concerning use and abuse of authority in medical collections management. Alberti did not go into the story except to say that Byrne had not wished to be displayed postmortem and that Hunter had procured Byrne’s remains through methods unacceptable today. (John Hunter bribed those that had been paid by Byrne to see to it that his mortal remains were properly buried at sea, to instead deliver Byrne’s body to Hunter’s collection.)
Alberti’s historical review not only provided a helpful context for discussion but also a firm foundation for his thesis that the development of social consciousness in the use and display of medical collections was not simply a marked shift of the last twenty years but rather a contiguous, continuous, radical and habitually responsive, requisite function of curatorial praxis in medical collections.
Some of the titles for recent, current and future exhibitions and activities of the Hunterian in London include:
Abnormal: Towards a Scientific Model of Disability
Anatomy of an Athlete
Neurosurgery Training Resources
Stable Isotope Analysis of Leopard Seal Skulls (to learn about global climate change)
Endangered Specimens Endangered Skills
Digitized Diseases (3D laser scanning)
Primates of the Caribbean
More information on these projects is available from the Royal College of Surgeon’s website: http://www.rcseng.ac.uk/museums
There is also some useful information in RCS Summer 2011 Newsletter
The question and answer portion of seminar circled the subject of the ethics of representation in medical collections. J. asked two questions (one toward the beginning of the session and a second toward the end). The first question asked at what point in time medical collections became accessible to the general public, the second whether or not the display of medical specimens depersonalizes and objectifies the subject of the display. Do medical museums behave responsibly and with sensitivity toward the subjects of their display? How do the general public perceptibly respond to these exhibits?
Many in attendance appeared surprised to learn that the Hunterian displays were not available to the general public (in the form they are today) until as recently as 2005. This is not to say that there has been no accessibility to medical collections developing previously, but legislation as well as social mores over the course of the past century have created an ebb and swell of popular accessibility. During the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, accessibility was primarily based upon status and vocation. In 1813 the Hunterian collection was available for exclusive viewing by college fellows and members on Tuesdays and Thursdays only: access, then, was hugely restricted. 'Fellows' was a term used by the Hunterian in its literal sense; women were not allowed viewing privileges until 1882. In 1882 the displays were open to view by accompanied women on Fridays and Saturdays. (As an aside, would this accompanied admission have been considered a ‘hot ticket’ by nineteenth century standards?)
Professor Sandell observed that this kind of continuous change throws into sharp relief the ethical issues involved in the needs of a museum to attract a visiting public while maintaining, in the case of the Hunterian, a specific remit to promote and define surgical standards. The underlying question asks whether or not it is valid to assume that the ability of the general public to view medical collections has changed how these collections are displayed. Moreover, what kind of interest the surgeons of today are taking in their museum? What are the surgeons gathering, experientially speaking, from the historical displays? In spite of hectic schedules, the surgical community have taken an active interest in the historical displays and museum events. Dr. Alberti hopes to appeal even more to the surgical community in future events.
In a related, reflexive response he further observed that as a museum professional he found himself in much the same position as many of his predecessors. How should he, as curator of a well-appointed and actively pedagogic medical collection navigate the needs of the visiting public against the needs of the community of surgeons upon whom the continuance of the museum depends? There are and have always been diverse and passionate opinions on what the appropriate function and expression a medical museum should be.
These meditations were prescient to a three-pronged divergence in the discussion. Elee Kirk pursued inquiry into the dignity of display and the administration of exhibition, Janet Marstine asked after practice of co-production in representation and a third direction of interest delved into review of the developing discipline of ‘medical humanities’.
In response to Dr. Marstine, Dr. Alberti referred to a conversation that he’d recently had with colleague Dr. Bernadette Lynch (with whom he wrote Legacies of Predjudice: History, Race and Co-Production in the Museum a reflective discussion of a failed co-production). Essentially Dr. Lynch had admonished Alberti to not lose his subjectivity. From listening to his views in seminar it seems Lynch’s concerns for the potential corruption of Dr. Alberti’s museological values are unfounded. “We are all patients in a medicalised world” he says quietly, the emotionally affective and ideological dimensions of medical collections remaining uppermost in his discussion.
Given that many medical collections seem to be traditionally presented in a very objective, didactical and dehumanizing fashion, Alex Woodall asked if medical collections might benefit from a more aesthetic interpretation—from the point-of-view of responsive, working artists. Dr. Alberti responded affirmatively that while many visitors do view the collection to improve their medical knowledge, some visitors attend with express interest in its aesthetic potential. This information further explicated an earlier assessment that the way museums are discussed, the professional categorization of museums as ‘medical collections’ ‘history collections’ or ‘art collections’, can potentially stratify and limit the potential use and interpretation of museum collections.
The Crystal Gallery, Dr. Alberti argued, though a medical collection is also essentially a narrative cultural artefact. Because the collection is exemplar to social narrative, many of the same practices applied in other types of museum contexts to engage the public, may be justifiably applied in the exhibition of scientific collections. When used as a narrative cultural artefact, medical collections potentially connect the visiting public to a greater awareness of not only their most basic ‘being’ or physicality, but to the experience of a deep recognition of what it means to be human and what it means to be alive.
In summation, during this term’s series of Brown Bag Seminar sessions the PhD community have shared conversations with:
5 October 2011
Speaker: Reiji Takayasu, Vice President of the Japanese Museum Management Association, (JMMA), National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo
Topic: New Wine Should Be Put Into A New Wineskin: The Science Communication Policy and new Movements in Japan
9 November 2011
Speaker: Britta Z. Geschwind, PhD student of the School of Cultural History, Stockholm University
Topic: Museums as Spaces for Learning: Shops and Entrances
23 November 2011
Speaker: Kevin Harris and Martin Dudley from Local Level
Topic: 'I didn't know I could'-Young People Looked After
30 November 2011
Speaker: Kate Hill, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Lincoln
Topic: Bygones: Investigating the History of Social History Collecting
and finally Dr. Alberti on medical museums. As diverse as these subjects may initially seem they have certain interests in common. Almost all seem to working towards the use of technology and science collections for the affective development of the visitor. Almost all of them have as their primary remit the wellbeing of the visiting public.
The seminars from this term also all seem (to me) to conclude that there is a story being told—a story ‘telling itself’—every time a visitor enters a display space. Who or what is telling this story? How is the story being told? Who is listening? Is the narrative of our collection, or our given exhibit, our museum or our museum gift shop—is the narrative unfolding all around us the story that we as curators want the visitor to be experiencing? And if it isn’t the story we want to support, why? Who are we to tell the visitor what to think, feel or know? Perhaps these topics and questions will be further discussed in future seminar sessions next term. I am grateful to Ceri Jones and Stephanie Bowry for arranging for the PhD community at University of Leicester Museum Studies what proved to be an engaging and illuminating afternoon seminar with Dr. Alberti. This report gratefully acknowledges the supportive editorial review of Jennifer Walklate. Posted with many thanks and a wish for the happiest of holidays to everyone.
Sunday, December 04, 2011
Keynote speakers will include Kevin Crowley (director of the Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments and an associate professor of education and psychology, University of Pittsburgh, US), James E. Katz (director of Center for Mobile Communication Studies,Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, USA), dr. Lynda Kelly (head of Web and Audience Research at the Australian Museum, Sydney, Australia), professor Gunnar LiestÃ¸l (Dept. of Media & Communication, University of Oslo), professor Angela McFarlane (director of Public Engagement and Learning, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK), and associate professor Ross Parry (Programme Director, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester).
Globalising trends in knowledge economies, digital participation and changing community needs catalyse transformations of museums, galleries and science centres. The conference will present a rich set of analyses of the current situation and raise important questions about the future for material and immaterial cultural and natural heritage. We invite research papers on the following topics:
* transforming modes of communication
* transforming visitor participation and learning
* transforming institutional organization
* transforming research methodologies
ABSTRACTS AND PAPERS
Submit your proposal now! The call for abstracts for research papers is now open. Check the submission guidelines on the conference website http://www.dreamconference.dk/ and submit before 6 January 2012.
PRE-CONFERENCE: INTERNATIONAL PH.D. COURSE
Students and young scholars are invited to a one-day ph.d. course 22 May 2012. Here, you get a venue to meet with some of the main conference speakers, make a project presentation and participate in discussions on the conference topics. Check the submission guidelines on the conference website http://www.dreamconference.dk/?page_id=19 and submit before 6 January 2012.
Register soon and get attractive early-bird rates. Reduced fees apply for students. Online registration on the conference websitehttp://www.dreamconference.dk/
Check the conference site for updates.
History of Science in Museums
Submission Date: 31 March 2012
Science museums and science centres are primary avenues to communicate science to the public and are the major non-formal settings for science education. Yet, the potential role of the history (and philosophy) of science in this cultural context is not well explored. This special issue will publish current research in the area and illuminate a variety of issues on the uses of history of science in museum environments.
Three orientations have been identified that support a holistic approach to the role of history of science in museum environments:
 The history of science as an exhibited narrative in all its associated forms introducing science to the lay audience in museums and centres.
 The history of science as a methodological tool for science teaching; that is as a topic featuring in the content of museum educational programmes.
 The history of science exhibition as a visual exercise especially implemented to promote new forms of science communication and scholarship in humanities and social sciences; that is as a means of exploring art-science interrelationships.
Scholars contributing to the issue include:
Prof. Fabio Bevilacqua (University of Pavia)
Prof. Peter Heering (Universität Flensburg)
Prof. Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond (Université de Nice)
Prof. Michel Van Praët (Directeur du projet de rénovation du musée de l’Homme, Paris)
Prof. Jorge Wagensberg (Science Director of "la Caixa" Foundation, Barcelona)
Researchers working on areas related to the interdisciplinary fields of science education, social studies in science, history and philosophy of science and museology are cordially invited to contribute to the thematic issue. Conceptual and theoretical manuscripts are particularly welcome as well as case studies from professional museum educators.
Submission Date: 31 March 2012
Manuscripts, with abstract, should be submitted for review direct to: www.editorialmanager.com/sced/
Notification of intention to submit and subject matter is appreciated as it assists coordination and planning of the issue.
Such notification, questions and inquiries should be directed to the guest editors:
Lecturer pedagogics and museum education
Democritus University of Thrace, Greece
Associate professor science education and science museum education
University of Patras, Greece