From July 20-24, I had the privilege of being faculty at a challenging and inspiring Summer School at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH) in India (co-organized by Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature). Graduate students from across India came together for a week centered on the topic “Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism.” As a break from the seminar format, Varun Bhatta (MCPH), Roland Wittje (IIT Chennai) and I organized an outing to the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the Kasturba Medical College of Manipal University. The museum, one of the largest of its kind in Asia, is used primarily for medical teaching, but has a growing role in the region for education and outreach.
We broke off into six groups to examine objects and critique the displays. Each group carried out examinations based on specific themes or questions, for example to “analyse biases in the displays,” “record personal responses,” “analyse local and cosmopolitan elements of a specimen or display,” “propose alternative exhibition themes” and “analyse the processes – technical and cultural – that go into making the final specimen.”
I was nervous about a session with human specimens, having more experience teaching with conspicuously designed and manufactured artifacts of metal, wood, glass and plastic. Would the students be able to “culturally dissect” the specimens within a seemingly airtight scientific setting?
The students presented punchy, brilliant critiques (all within 30 minutes!) that took us far beyond the traditional medical categories of the museum. They raised a number of issues related to translation (between English and Kannada) for words like monster in “Anencephalic Monster”; ethical concerns of the specimen sources; implications of specimens arranged and displayed as art pieces; cultural questions behind the choice and presentation of certain display themes and objects; the absence of information about the tools, processes and techniques used in specimen preparation; questions about labels, language and audience (the larger panels were all English); questions behind choices – technical and cultural – that go into making a seemingly non-problematic museum encounter; notions of objectivity in medical education and practice; and, strong gender themes throughout the displays.
Remarkably, in a very short time, we analysed the specimens and displays using careful observation, questions and multiple perspectives. India has vast, underexplored collections of scientific instruments, specimens, and archival materials. These collections have enormous potential for this kind of open-ended group exploration that inspires new approaches to teaching, research and exhibit development.