Tag Archives: objectivity

Current labour of love…

… is the finalisation of a chapter for the edited volume New Representation in Scientific Practice, edited by Catelijne Coopmans, Mike Lynch, Janet Vertesi & Steve Woolgar. MIT Press.

Our contribution is entitled:
Networked neuroscience: brain scans and visual knowing at the intersection of atlases and databases

Anne Beaulieu and Sarah de Rijcke

Brain scans have been in heavy circulation these past 20 years as some of the most fascinating and ubiquitous digital images in scientific and cultural spheres. In this chapter, we analyze how the scans are both digital and networked images that depend on suites of technologies (Shove 2007) for their constitution and meaning. In particular, we will show how the production and reading of brain scans function in different suites, some of which reinforce a modernist, mechanical, pipeline approach to brain imaging, where digital images are acted upon as measurements, and others that highlight the interactive and interventionist potential of digital imaging, where brain scans are constituted as fluid animations. We argue that brain scans come to be associated with specific kinds of authority through complex ecologies of visualization routines in digital visual culture. In particular, brain scans are focal points in arrangements of scanning and database technologies, constituted in electronic networks where individual experiences are mediated by interfaces. New modes of seeing and novel technologies co-evolve with adjustments in particular epistemic approaches, at times resembling earlier practices and at times moving towards new kinds of objectivity.

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Photographic documents of beauty and truth

Photographer Hans van den Bogaard was recently commissioned by the Amsterdam Academic Medical Center (AMC) to photograph part of the Vrolik collection. This 19th century collection consists of over five thousand anatomical, pathological-anatomical, zoological and teratological specimen. Van den Bogaard’s photographs are currently on display at photography museum Foam. Last week, we took our guest Andrew Sempere (MIT-based designer, curator, artist) to see the intriguing and also unsettling exhibition.

The Vrolik collection was originally privately owned by Professor Gerardus Vrolik (1775-1859) and his son Professor Willem Vrolik (1801-1863). It was the last collection of its kind in the Netherlands. Increasing specialization in science and medicine decreased the need for a collection that covered the very broad spectrum of comparative normal and pathological anatomy. Six years after Willem Vrolik passed away in 1863, an Amsterdam citizens committee acquired the entire collection. It was handed over to the Athenaeum Illustre, the predecessor of the University of Amsterdam. Today, the collection is housed at the AMC.

On the Foam website, we read that Van den Bogaard’s assignment “was not just to document the collection, but to visualise it in a much freer manner. (…) The result transcends traditional scientific photography in which the medium primarily serves a specific branch of science. Van den Bogaard has succeeded in creating many photos which fascinate not only because of what they depict, but because of how the specimen is depicted. The specific use of both natural and artificial light, his choice of a particular camera and special lens and his well-considered use of the blue background in photographing many of the specimens ensure that the photos far surpass the straightforward recording of a collection.” A similar text was displayed at the beginnig of the exhibition. We therefore entered the exhibition space with this specific ‘artistic’ mind-set.

Personally, I came across a lot of photographs of anatomical specimen when I was working on my dissertation on brain imaging. I thought I was used to dealing with the discomfort one may feel in not knowing if consent was given to anatomists for using the human remains. I thought  I was used to these kinds of images, also to more aesthetic ones. I guess I was wrong. I found it to be quite an unsettling experience to look at these aestheticized photographs of anatomical preparations, ranging from parts of the human face to anencephalic fetuses, and to find beauty in the womb of a chicken, for instance (image on the right).

Considering the long history of anatomical imaging, using an artistic eye for the purposes of clinical, medical-scientific documentation has from the mid-19th century onwards become much less common. But Van den Bogaard’s photographs fit well with an earlier tradition of anatomical display, dating back as far as the Renaissance. One of the most famous examples is Andreas Vesalius’ spectacular folio of the human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543. In Vesalius’s day, the beauty of the images was seen as an essential part of achieving accuracy. In the Netherlands, the 17th century anatomist Frederic Ruysch is still well-known for his artful anatomical museum. Ruysch preferably displayed his specimen in separate cabinets, each displaying a separate anatomical still life, a nature morte (Luuc Kooijmans, De Doodskunstenaar, Bert Bakker Publishers, 2004). Quite similarly, Van den Bogaard’s photographs can also be seen as timeless memento mori‘s.

In some ways, the move of the Vrolik collection from the  academic hospital to the white walls of a gallery is less successful. Van den Bogaard’s aesthetic photographs are accompanied by captions with very dry descriptive medical information, revealing the fact that the exhibition was commissioned by the academic hospital. This has a very disquieting effect. Medical-anatomical information is prioritized over, for instance, background information on the photographer’s artistic and technological choices. I considered this to be a missed opportunity to build bridges between the two poles, and resorted to the web to find more information on Van den Bogaard’s take on the exhibition. Luckily, Radio 6’s De Avonden aired an interview with the photographer on May 6.

On the other hand, this type of photography and captions might actually fit quite well with the long-standing tradition of anatomical display I was referring to above. As said, the combination of artistic visualization and anatomical description was much more common in Vesalius’  and Ruysch’ days.  Moreover, it was also quite customary for scholars to look for ways in which to disciplineartists.

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Regarding the Brain

Technology and culture determine our view of the brain

What does the brain look like? What do we really know about our brains? For centuries, we’ve been telling ourselves time and again that we now have an objective view of our brains. However, objectivity depends on technological developments, human actions and social and cultural factors, to name but a few. This has been revealed by research by Sarah de Rijcke, (yes, this blog’s Sarah) who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 18 February 2010.

More on the thesis, Regarding the Brain. Practices of Objectivity in Cerebral Imaging. 17th Century-Present.
And more from the horse’s mouth can be found here, where Sarah was ‘PhD of the week’ on BNR nieuwsradio and defended her thesis in just a minute.

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Museums and measuring performance, part I

Last week, Trilce Navarrete and I attended a debate at the Reinwardt Academy of cultural heritage in Amsterdam on performance indicators and changing roles of museums in the present “information society.” The debate was part of a monthly series called Erfgoedarena (Heritage Arena), co-organised by the Reinwardt Academy and the Netherlands Institute for Heritage (NIH). In this first part of the post, I’ll provide a brief overview of the debate. In part II, I’ll link the debate to two books on the politics of policy making, and will raise some points for discussion.

The NIH asked freelance consultant Natasja Wehman last year to explore the particular shapes the changing roles of museums might take.  Her report can be found here (in Dutch). Wehman signalled 4 possible scenarios, or roles:

1. the museum as networker: the institute is up-to-speed about things happening around the museum, functions as a conduit, facilitates existing (knowledge) networks. This can take different shapes, depending on the museum

2. the museum as a laboratory: also comes in different guises, f.i. as a space for contemporary (new media) artists to experiment, or art-science lab, or cooperation with creative industry

3. the validator: museum as knowledge and information expert, but with a 21st century twist: the museum as cultural producer instead of reproducer

4. the innovator: combination of the three scenarios above. According to Wehman, this is the ideal museum of the future. ‘Possession’, either the possession of a collection and/or of knowledge, she argues,  is now usually put first. But museums are losing their monopoly on these ‘possessions’. They need to innovate, or transform. The representatives she interviewed mentioned a number of relevant preconditions for that transformation: a. work together, b. create opportunities for research & development, c. create time, d. be aware of relevance for society at large. Wehman adds that museums need to create new ways to engage with audiences, and need to realize that the meaning and relevance of a museum is not static but in flux.  (post continues in part two)

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Presentation at Tropenmuseum

Yesterday, we presented an outline of our research to some of the employees of the Tropenmuseum and the Royal Tropical Institute. The weather was lovely, which made our wait for tram 14 a lot more pleasant.


It was very nice to be able to share our plans for the fieldwork at the museum, and to meet the people I will probably be spending lots of time with (as I will be doing the fiedwork in this case study). We had decided to talk briefly about our theoretical interest, before delving into the practical plans for carrying out the fieldwork. We discussed our specific focus (i.e. how images in web-based databases generate a new way of knowing we label network realism), and talked about two research strands that come together in our research. The first is work on web-based databases and knowledge production (f.i. Jenkins 2006 Convergence Culture; Bruns 2008 Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage), and the second is work on digital technologies and visual culture (Daston & Galison 2007 Objectivity; Bolter & Grusin 2000 Remediation: Understanding New Media; De Rijcke & Beaulieu 2007). We explained our understanding of network realism by contrasting (presumably) the oldest photograph with several slides on the interactive possibilities of the museum’s online database. We think the contrast between two very different practices of objectivity worked well (i.e. Daston and Galison’s mechanical objectivity versus  our label network realism), and the audience was responsive of our proposal for the fieldwork. In the discussion afterwards, many interesting questions were raised and suggestions were made. People were open to the layeredness of issues of representation, and seemed willing to have us as a guest, to learn from them. One of the things we will hopefully look into during our stay at the museum (June-September), is the introduction of a new search engine called “digital association,” taking place in that same period.

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