Wednesday, July 9, 2014

infrastructure histories and postal museums

The Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, has an interactive pneumatic tube system amongst its fascinating collection, which I had fun with on a past visit, and wrote about here and here. In late September this year, the museum will also be home to another fascinating event: a conference on the history of infrastructures.

The program for New Directions in the History of Infrastructure has just been released. There are papers on telegraph systems, post, bicycles and tunnels in sessions about borders and identities, flows of information, meaning and materiality, and politics and power, as well as a Masterclass for PhDs.

I couldn't resist submitting an abstract for a conference to be held in this amazing post museum! Luckily I was accepted, and will be presenting a paper about pneumatic tubes in the materiality session. Here is my abstract:

Surviving in the hospital: The adaptation and persistence of pneumatic tube systems

Invisible to many, hidden in the walls and ceilings of hospitals and other networked institutions, is a technology which has fuelled the imagination of novelists, moviemakers, retronauts and steampunks, but rarely cultural scholars: pneumatic tube systems. There is much however of interest in this deceptively simple infrastructural arrangement, which involves the movement of objects in a vacuum. These systems are remarkably adaptable, over time and place, with uses ranging from expansive postal networks in European and American cities in the 19th Century, to small systems in office buildings in the 1950s, to contemporary supermarkets and banks. This paper focuses on the adjustments which contribute to the ongoing life of pneumatic tube networks in modern life, with discussion of the early stages of an anthropological study of how they are manufactured, designed for, built into, used and repaired in hospitals. Demand for efficiency, the increase number of tests and the rise of the mega-hospital have all contributed to an increasing demand for pneumatic tube technology. While hospitals increasingly become digitised, there remain tissues and blood and other materials which cannot be transported virtually. Each hospital however has its own infrastructural requirements. This observational research will consider adjustments to pneumatic tube systems through the people who work with it (architects, engineers, nurses, pathologists and so forth); the skills, tinkering and improvisations which constitute this work; and the materials which make up and travel the systems, including not only the plastic capsules and blood samples but also the computerized networks and the air through which things pass.Although focusing on the case study of the contemporary hospital, the paper will situate this discussion within a broader consideration of pneumatic tube systems from the 19th century to present day, in a range of settings (including the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen). 

Image from the Post and Tele Museum in Copenhagen my own.

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