Medical Museion

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Medical Museion's project under the synthetic biology strand views the idea of studio + laboratory through the dual prism of museum + open biology. Both the museum and the open biology space occupy the territory between the studio and laboratory, and both place public accessibility center stage, promising new opportunities for public engagement.

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From kitchen sink to museum: Doing and debating DIY synthetic biology

A key principle of Studiolab is to experiment with merging the artist’s studio and research laboratory. This potentially enriches both practices, whilst also engaging public audiences in scientific creativity in innovative ways. In our project, we view the idea of studio + laboratory through the dual prism of museum + open biology. Both the museum and the open biology space occupy the territory between the studio and laboratory thus promising an even closer engagement and both place public accessibility center stage. 

In an exhibition room Medical Museion will install an open biology lab – a space that allows participation and developing of experiments and which has potential for democratizing biological science. At a series of public events visitors will be able to take part, getting a material insight into synthetic biology that will ground informal discussion about the origins, principles, and ethics of synthetic and open biology. In the pioneering spirit of open-science, hacking, and punk aesthetics, this shifts the material process of laboratory protocols – and the creativity of experimental design – out of dominant research institutions such as universities and large corporations and into publicly accessible spaces.

The room will oscillate between active laboratory and an installation continually accessible to museum visitors, and online. Through recording of participants’ experiences the activities in the open lab will form part of the exhibition.

Synthetic biology is often described in engineering language: it promises to give us ‘biological bricks’; a ‘tool kit’ of standardized parts through which useful biological systems can be easily assembled and engineered. The expressed aim is to develop sustainable and cheap methods for cell-based production of e.g. biofuels, biochemicals, personalized drugs, and novel diagnostics. The means to reach these goals is to study biological systems in order to be able to construct similar systems, components, cells and organisms.

Together with increased knowledge sharing and digital fabrication of equipment, this ease with which one can engineer biology also opens up possibilities for non-traditional and non-regulated scholars and private persons, young and old, to get their hands dirty in open labs. In addition, synthetic biology brings an interesting (and to some disconcerting) twist to the idea of technology intervening in nature: here, nature is harnessed to create technology and vice versa, troubling the distinction itself.

The concern surrounding this vision of synthetic biology includes an impressive cast of characters: synthetic creations that run amok, ‘unnatural’ humans, and reckless or even malicious scientists. There is therefore much interest – also from the highest political level – in understanding public opinion and encouraging debate about synthetic biology futures as underlined by the international DIYbio outreach conferences in California hosted by the FBI in June 2012. Focus needs, however also to be directed to the gritty, immediate questions about what synthetic biologists are actually doing, what are the short-term prospects, the barriers they face day to day, their perceptions of risk? Or in other words, perhaps the ‘ethics is in the details’.

As a medical museum – a public space full of things – we are ideally placed to contribute to public engagement with the stuff of synthetic biology, grounding debates in encounters with synthetic biology at work. In combination with the hands-on events, we will therefore host a symposium at the end of the project in collaboration with University of Copenhagen’s UNIK Center for Synthetic Biology.

Our project is developed in partnership with:

  • Martin Malthe Borch, MSc Biological engineering, designer, co-founder of the local biohackerspace BiologiGaragen.
  • Sara Krugman, Health educator and Interaction designer, currently completing her masters at The Copenhagen School of Interaction Design. Co-founder of Line, working to make products and services that bring our health data into our hands.
  • Emil D. Lambreth Polny, project coordinator at UNIK Center for Synthetic Biology.
  • Rüdiger Trojok, open-science scholar and molecular biologist, currently finishing his Masters at the Technical University of Denmark.
  • Ane Pilgaard Sørensen, designer and exhibition assistant at Medical Museion.
  • Thomas Söderqvist, professor and director at Medical Museion and initiator/responsible for the project. 
  • Karin Tybjerg, associate professor at Medical Museion and co-director of the project.
  • Louise Whiteley, assistant professor at Medical Museion and co-director of the project.

Contact at Medical Museion: 


Previous work

This project builds on Medical Museion’s foundational interest in the use of objects and hands-on encounters to engage people in science and medicine, and forms part of a recent series of events exploring new ways of putting this into practice. You can read more about our Body | Medicine | Object series here, including an event going behind the scenes of a gene test, encounters with devices involved in ‘balancing’ the body such as acupuncture needles and biopsy kits, and an art workshop using drawing, photography, and breaking to look afresh at the museum, ageing, and our bodies.

About Medical Museion 

Medical Museion is an integrated research and museum unit at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen. The museum has one of the largest and richest collections of historical medical science artefacts and images in Europe, and a permanent public gallery. 

The museum also has a very active programme for the acquisitioning and preservation of contemporary biomedical and biotechnological heritage, and produces temporary exhibitions, events, and public engagement activities exploring contemporary biomedicine through its material and aesthetic culture. Major exhibitions include Oldetopia: On Age and Ageing (2008–2009), Split+Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine (2009–2010; winner of Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits 2010); Primary Substances: Treasures from the History of Protein Researc’ (2009–2010); Healthy Ageing (2010), Chemistry of Life (2010) and Balance and Metabolism (2011).

Alongside curatorial and museum staff, Medical Museion houses an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers ranging from philosophers and historians of medicine to sociologists, communication specialists, and designers. We are also connected with scientific departments at the University of Copenhagen, in part through funding to develop science communication research in the context of metabolic and healthy aging science. Our exhibitions and public engagement activities involve collaboration across these diverse perspectives and forms of expertise, and the synergy between academic research projects and public activities is an active area of exploration.

Our research in contemporary medical science communication focuses on user-driven construction of medical heritage, representations of scientific research in media and cultural texts, and the interaction between medical specialists and the public in the construction of physical and web exhibitions. We also frequently take an aesthetic perspective on contemporary medical heritage and its communication.  In 2007 we organised an international research workshop on ‘Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context’ followed by a public conference on ‘Art and Biomedicine’, and in 2011 we organized a workshop on ‘The Sensuous Object’ in which scholars from across disciplines explored the sensuous qualities of objects from the museum’s collection.

Medical Museion’s research and museum website/blog is internationally recognized as the leading blog in the medical museum field, and we are also developing social media tools for both inter-scientific and public communication. We use image and video to record the process of research and exhibition making, and also as a research tool for exploring the everyday aesthetics of laboratory culture.

Medical Museion was built in 1787 as the Royal Academy of Surgeons, and generations of Danish doctors trained in our beautiful buildings. We have a series of intriguing rooms that can be used for temporary exhibitions, installations, or research, in addition to the larger exhibition spaces. At the heart of the building is the anatomical theatre and auditorium, which offers a unique atmosphere for events.