The “exhibition value” of human remains. Exhibitions as actors in (medical)-ethical discourse

The creation of science-based exhibitions and, in particular, the selection, staging and thematic contextualisation of objects, must always comply – whether implicitly or explicitly – with ethical imperatives. This is especially true when the objects on display are related to human beings and human remains, which have always garnered widespread attention, not only since Gunther von Hagen’s “Body Worlds” exhibition.

Exhibitions render their respective scientific frameworks explicit and also change these contexts themselves. They also have an impact on science’s image of the human being as well as on social systems of values and norms. In the case of medical-historical exhibitions, the relationship between medicine and society is especially dynamic. Although there is a close relationship between medicine and questions of ethics, the goal here is not necessarily to reflect upon systems of norms and values; still, it must at least be an obligatory part of the conceptual and content-related considerations.

This dissertation project examines exhibitions focusing on the history of medicine starting in 1950, viewing them as actors in a socially impactful ethical discourse. The project addresses a number of questions, including the following: Which positions are implicitly or explicitly adopted? How do exhibitions respond to social debates about the medical and scientific view of human beings and their remains? How do exhibitions themselves participate as actors? What is perceived as a transgression in exhibitions? How do science experts, the public and individual museum visitors respond to such transgressions? What exactly are the objects and modes of presentation involved? What is deliberately omitted? Which objects are not put on display? Which presentation-media and aesthetics are used in the exhibition of sensitive exhibits? How is the relationship between a special exhibition and permanent exhibition achieved? With these questions as guides, one can examine exhibitions as “final products”, while also investigating – to the greatest extent possible – the decision-making processes that lead up to that final product.

Project supervision: Prof. Claudia Wiesemann, Institute for Ethics and the History of Medicine, Georg August University Göttingen

Museum: German Medical History Museum (DMM), Ingolstadt