Friday, August 20, 2010

All roads lead to Copenhagen. At least they do for medical museum folk in September.

The Medical Museion originated in 1907 as the Medicinhistorisk Museum (Museum of the History of Medicine), to mark the 50th anniversary of the Danish Medical Association. In 1917, the University of Copenhagen assumed control of the collections, and today the museum is a part of the Institute of Public Health at the university''s Faculty of Health Sciences.

In 1946 the museum moved into the building complex at 60-62 Bredgade street, which housed the Royal Danish Surgical Academy (1787). King Christian VII founded the Academy in 1785 as an independent institution dedicated to the education of surgeons. Peter Meyn (1749-1808) designed the Academy building, which was inaugurated on 25 October 1787.

This scale model shows the layout of the 18th century hospital complex where the Medical Museion resides today. The square structure on the left is the original hospital, now a decorative arts museum (well worth visiting), while the Medical Museion sits at lower right, the second structure in.

In anticipation of the September meeting of the EAMHMS (European Association of Museums of the History of Medical Sciences) in Copenhagen, I thought that I’d share my impressions and pictures of the Medical Museion, the hosting institution. Colleagues, friends, and readers of the Dittrick blog might only have learned about the Medical Museion in the past year or two. I know that I was pretty ignorant of the place until about six years ago, and only came to appreciated the scope of the Medical Museion endeavor after Thomas Söderqvist spoke here in 2005. Even with this information in hand, my visit there in 2006 brought still more surprises and new-found respect for the creative venture underway at the Medical Museion of the University of Copenhagen.

My first contact with anyone from the Medical Museion came in June 2004 at a meeting at Dartmouth University, “Scientific Instrument Collections in the University." That meeting, hosted by Rich Kremer (Dartmouth) and David Pantalony (Canada Science and Technology Museum), brought together curators and directors of university-based museums from across the North America and Europe. I knew perhaps less than one quarter of the attendees, so it was a great occasion for networking.

Among them I met Frank Allen Rasmussen, representing the Medical Museion and then responsible for the institution’s collections, archives, and library. Frank told me about ambitious plans for the Medical Museion that aimed to document biomedical technology developments in the period 1955-2005, with the generous support of Novo Nordisk Foundation, a research foundation. Frank spoke of a grand venture and I admit that I thought that he sounded a bit over-the-top and grandiose. Well, I was wrong.

Thomas Söderqvist, Ph.D., Director of the Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen

The University of Copenhagen engaged Thomas Söderqvist to lead this endeavor and he in turn assembled a team of bright young postdocs to tackle several spheres of modern biomedical technology, ranging from imaging to the foetus, and from endoscopy to the history of transplantation. The scope of this venture seemed pretty ambitious, so I made a note to follow their progress. That wasn’t very hard because Thomas had started a blog to document their doings, called Biomedicine on Display, and kept us informed about their developing efforts.

A quick read of his blog and I was hooked. Soderqvist clearly had a vision and a mandate to do something pathbreaking and I wanted to learn more. To that end, I invited him to give the Handerson Lecture at the Dittrick. His presentation, The Rise of Biomedicine and the End of the Modern Medical Museum, outlined the challenge of collecting and presenting medical innovations in an era of black-box technology, even disembodied computer-based instrumentation. Collecting itself is daunting and sometimes involves dumpster-diving in search of instruments on the verge of obsolescence and yet not considered “museum worthy”. Engagement with the arts comprised another exciting new avenue for making meaning of modern biotechnology, as did the encouragement of serious historical scholarship by the postdocs on Thomas’ team. Clearly, there was a lot going on in Copenhagen.

Wanting to learn more firsthand, I made it a point to swing by Copenhagen in 2006 after the EAMHMS Congress in Riga, Lativia. Specifically, I offered to present a seminar on our work with the Percy Skuy Collection on the History of Contraception [I had a pretty hard time explaining how Americans led in the bioscience of contraception, and yet the topic has also been a hot-button political and moral issue in our society].

Upon arrival at the Medical Museion, Thomas introduced me to his team of postdocs and staff, and then said he’d be busy for a while. Would I like to take a look around the place on my own, and we’d reconnect later? You bet! This sounded just great to me – to have a free rein to check out the place -- exhibits and collections behind-the-scenes -- on my own.

Boy, what a revelation. The Medical Museion is huge in terms of the artifact collection, with strong representation in 18th and 19th century material. Its home, originally a surgeons' academy or guild hall (not unlike the Josephinum in Vienna), housed a distinguished building incorporating a beautiful lecture amphitheater, flanked by an array of rooms turned into museum gallery space. As I wandered about the place it dawned upon me that this was a totally under-appreciated collection, far more important than I ever imagined. Yes, I knew they were doing important work collecting and interpreting contemporary medical technologies, but I had no clue how broad and extensive it is. Happily, I strolled through the period rooms and galleries usually visited on guided tours. With Thomas’ keys in hand, I headed into the recesses of storage above the main galleries. The collection storage (stores to the British) went on and on. I felt privileged and grateful for the experience. My images will convey the sense of discovery and wonder, I hope. Without doubt, the Medical Museion is one of the most important and comprehensive collections of medical technology – both retrospectively to the 18th century and on through to today – that I have visited as a medical museum curator over three decades.

Ion Meyer, Head of Collections and main conservator of the Medical Museion

After my visit, I reflected on what Thomas et cie have achieved, and how it needed to be shared with my medical museum colleagues. Yes, Thomas’ blog showcases many aspects of their accomplishments, but an open dialogue remained to be enjoyed. To that end, I leaned hard on him to host the EAMHMS Congress in 2010 and he finally relented and acquiesced. So… It’s off to Copenhagen in September, and when back I will report on what more we saw and learned. Check out the Congress info here.

Jim Edmonson

(all photos taken by me in 2006)

and some more Copehangen images:

Danish Museum of Art & Design (Kunstindustrimuseet).

Nyhavn (New Harbor)

Amalienborg Palace

Rosenborg Castle (Rosenborg Slot)