Playful research

written by Anna Harris

Maastricht-QUARANTINE #1, 2020, MAASTRICHT. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that scientific productivity is going down amongst parents during pandemic lockdowns, but kids can also be a great source of inspiration too.


In an essay for Cultural Praxis, I wrote about playing with my toddler in lockdown, and with my father too, and how our Making Clinical Sense project is also imbued with, and inspired, by playful research methods and forms of gathering. I consider at the end how, “in the future, I would like to try and engage in more open-ended methodological experiments that have an “underwater” or “extra-terrestrial” feel, of further escape and open-ended possibility, for it seems to be this is where we can learn not only about the not-yet, but about ordinary life too, and question the status quo”.

Medicine has long been criticised by STS for its measuring practices. The racist use of tools such as measuring tapes, even in today’s public health programs, has shown to problematically shape the worlds measured and overshadow alternative narratives (García-Meza and Yates-Doerr 2020/Yates-Doerr and García-Meza 2020). To date, focus has been on the clinician/healthcare worker/medical researcher at work, with their tools of measurement to hand. In this paper I step back into the training of clinicians. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork in medical schools (part of a larger project, Making Clinical Sense) where bodies as standards of measurement are continually formed and calibrated. I look at how, through the very same instrument that interests critical scholars of metrics – measuring tapes – numbers get implicated into doctors’ embodied knowledge. With this soft and flexible tape, medical students learn to calibrate their own sensory knowledge as they measure lung expansion, gestation on plastic models and the length of their fingers. In doing so they create their own bodies as the standard or measure of things (Hoel and Carusi 2018). I suggest that unpacking this inexpensive teaching device, part of medical knowledge creation that wraps itself around and into bodies, offers new insights into the study of metrics in medicine (Adams 2016). Tracing the making of measuring bodies, as well as measured bodies opens up questions about the implications of the sociomateriality of learning, the politics of using one’s own body as standard, and the never-ending quest for the numerical objectification of sensory knowing.

Dr. Auzoux’s developed his papier-mâché anatomical models after finding it difficult to source and preserve cadavers. They were soon being made for medical schools around the world, to teach anatomy. His workshop later went on to make animal and botanical models too. It is a fascinating history worth delving into, when more time becomes available.


For now though, in my own quarantine workshop, one thing I have realised about the papier-mâché things we are making is how easy it is to mold the paper into whatever form you want to make. There comes a point of firmness however, when the object is fixed, and unlike more dynamic models made from other materials, knitting for example, there is no way to make it move, other than with your hands (flying the rocket through the air on blast-off for example).

Bastian's rocket

In such flight, I also realise how fragile these paper models are. Below I have included some other fragile models, these made of glass and photographed during a visit to the Natural History Museum in Vienna after last year’s AMEE (European medical education association) conference. These paper and glass models, digital on our screens, are material objects with their own properties, lessons and fragility, something that is almost tangible if we look in tactile ways.


Image of models are all used under a Creative Commons Lisence, the pregnancy model downloaded from Wikimedia, originally uploaded from the Boerhaave Museum; the flower model also downloaded from Wikimedia originally uploaded by MuseeEducation, and the eye model from Wikimedia originally uploaded by Gmogicato (CC BY-SA (

Photos of glass models from the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum), Vienna, Austria

Face Masks and Respirators

The N95 respirator mask has become one of the most important medical devices of this time. Fast Company has written an excellent history of the object which filters particles, telling about its origins during another disease outbreak. Today we are seeing fast developments in improvised respirator design, such as the use of snorkelling masks in northern Italy and worldwide. Many others are making their own masks, one of my favourite designs the Olson Mask (I made a few below), an initiative “powered by” Maker Health who has been driving great making activities in hospitals for some years now.

Olson masks

Shipping container hospital rooms

Also in Italy, architects have designed shipping containers that connect to each other to form an intensive care unit. With extractors to create negative air pressure, these units are designed to be transported anywhere and usable within a few hours, meaning that they can travel to where they are most needed. The architects have made their design open-source.

Such open-source on-the-ground innovations will also be met with resistance and competition from commercial industries. As Vincanne Adams writes in her astute and critical commentary on disaster capitalism surrounding the pandemic in Somatosphere: “grassroots efforts to make hospital masks with 3D printers are threatened with patent infringement lawsuits, and Amazon entrepreneurs who hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer are allowed to gouge prices without being hauled off to jail.” This pandemic, like others before it, is having unequal effects reiterating global and other inequalities. There is hope in these open-source and shared innovations attempting to address healthcare resource shortages, often using local materials, but also threats to their possibilities too.

Image from Banej CC BY-SA (

As telemedicine and robotic care come to the fore in clinical situations and smartphones aid contract-tracing, medical educators are trying to think of creative ways to educate future doctors online. Medical organisations are frantically arranging video conferences to work out how to respond to these “accelerated changes” in medical education.

While some final year medical students are being called to the frontline of healthcare with early graduations, and others volunteer their services where they can, many more sit at home, in front of computers and books, trying to learn about anatomy and pathology, about the sensory signs and symptoms of clinical conditions in their future patients. They are taking online courses on how to break bad news, watching videos on how to examine someone’s lungs and lectures on reading pathology results.

Medical councils are investigating whether there can be an increase in the amount of experience gained through simulations, with “meaningful alternatives”  to in-person clinical learning encouraged. Virtual Reality providers in medical education are seeing a boom in sales and advertising their products widely since the global spread of the virus (judging from the number of emails from them in my inbox). For the first time final year medical students are being examined online. Last week at Imperial College: “students in their sixth year of medical studies logged in at 1pm on Wednesday and Friday to demonstrate their ability to diagnose a patient’s condition. They were presented with a patient and given their history, findings from clinical examination and data from investigations such as blood tests. They then had to answer 150 questions in three hours, meaning they had 72 seconds to answer each one”.

The implications of this kind of testing, of the increased reliance on simulation and on learning how to listen, touch and be with patients online are challenging and uncertain. There is much to think about and contribute to this situation, in regards to how material conditions shape the ways doctors train doctors who will increasingly be facing such situations. In the coming weeks we will offer some further reflections on this topic based on our work, as we, like the rest of the world, try to grapple with what is happening.


The image above was originally posted to Flickr by IntelFreePress at It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

For our next Basement Talk, we are happy to welcome Anna Harris from Maastricht University who will talk about how instructions offer different ways of re-orientating sensory knowledge. This talk will take place on Thursday 20 February at 1pm.

WHERE: Designroom Mintlab (Parkstraat 45, 3000 Leuven)

WHEN: Thursday, February 20 from 1PM to 2PM

It’s a free and public event, but please confirm your attendance via email to marije.nouwen[at] on Wednesday 19 February the latest.

Speaker: Anna Harris

Title: Sensory instructions: examples and experiments

Abstract: In this basement talk Anna Harris will focus on the use and reconfiguration of instructions, as both an object of enquiry and a methodological approach in teaching and research. In particular, she looks at instructions which offer different ways of re-orientating sensory knowledge. She will look at this topic from four different and intersecting points:

  1. A look at the sensory lessons entailed in cooking recipes
  2. Through an ethnographic examination of how protocols used to teach doctors sensory skills are made, used and remade
  3. By playing with how instructions can inform collaboration in a team sensory ethnography project about training medical skills of diagnosis
  4. Considering instructions as probes for creative research and teaching more broadly

When exploring these points she will look at how multisensorality is used in instructions to expand imaginative spaces and reorientate the senses. In doing so she tries to develop upon our knowledge of the “arts of noticing” (Tsing 2015), and consider how, as researchers, we can also bring such observations more creatively into our own methodological and academic practices. The talk will draw upon research and experiments she has been doing with her research team, Making Clinical Sense, a European Research Council funded project, as well as her forthcoming book, A Sensory Education (Bloomsbury 2020).

Bio: Anna Harris first worked as a doctor in Australia and the UK before learning anthropology and turning her ethnographic gaze back to the medical profession. Missing the hands-on element of clinical practice in academia, her work endeavors to find creative and practically engaging methods for studying questions of embodiment, learning, materiality and infrastructures of medical practice. She currently works with a great team of anthropologists and historians at Maastricht University on the European Research Council funded project Making Clinical Sense. In her spare time she experiments with cooking, embroidery and knitting.

A work-in-progress seminar in the MUSTS research group:

Identifying an intellectual space to develop the role of film as part of a research method in the humanities.

In this session, I would like to think about how we might use film as part of a research method in a humanities context.  I am particularly interested in how the recent work of colleagues from anthropology, social semiotics and related social-sciences disciplines might inform this.

The field of embodied cognition acknowledges the sophisticated role of the body in framing and understanding knowledge and expertise (in Polyani’s famous phrase, ’we know more than we can tell’).  The related field of multimodality recognises non-textual, non-verbal contributions to knowledge.  These areas of scholarship, I suggest, constitute a premise for engaging with film as a serious medium in the academic context – to use the medium to record, arrange, and interpret non-written and non-spoken information.  Film has been applied in such a way in social sciences contexts for over a decade, especially by those working with ethnographic film making.  But although methods for visual, object, and performance analysis obviously exist in the humanities, (to my knowledge) no equivalent approach exists reconciling film and multimodality in a humanities framework.

To think through this work in progress, I will draw on a specific historical case study concerning the invention of the triangulation technique of vascular anastomosis at the turn of the twentieth century.  The technique is ascribed to the surgeon Alexis Carrel, and although his drive and vision were undeniably important, it is rarely even acknowledged that he was taught to sew by one of France’s leading embroiderers, Marie Anne Leroudier.  By using re-enactment methods and film, I suggest, we might acknowledge her substantial contributions to Carrel’s material understanding, thread management, and needlework, and build a case to revisit her historical significance in the history of medicine as well as embroidery.


Paul Craddock is a cultural historian of medicine, his main area of expertise being the cultural history of transplant surgery.  Dragon in a Suitcase (Fig Tree/Penguin) explores transplant surgery from the sixteenth century to the present day, and will be his first book. Paul is currently Research Film Maker on the V&A Research Institute’s Encounters on the Shop Floor project led by Dr Marta Ajmar.  Encounters highlights the role of embodied knowledge in medical and creative craft, industry, and education.  He is also working with Dr Anna Harris at the on her Making Clinical Sense project. As a film maker for research and cultural institutions, Paul is currently working with Imperial College, London, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  His earlier film work has been featured in Nature, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and MoMA. Paul holds an honorary appointment Senior Research Associate in the Division of Surgery and Interventional Sciences at UCL Medical School in London.  He is represented by Jenny Hewson at Lutyens and Rubenstein Literary Agency.


A filmmaking workshop for the Skillslab:

Op donderdagmiddag 30 januari verzorgen Anna Harris en Paul Craddock een workshop “film making” in het Skillslab. Anna kennen de meesten van jullie als de antropologisch onderzoeker die vorig jaar frequent in het Skillslab aanwezig was voor haar onderzoek “Making Clinical Sense” ( Paul Craddock, een cultureel geschiedkundige die zich ook bezig houdt met het maken van filmmateriaal voor onderzoek en culturele instellingen, is deze en volgende maand in Maastricht om samen te werken met Anna in het kader van haar onderzoek (  We zullen stilstaan bij de verschillende manieren om video te gebruiken in academische context. Waarom zou je je als academicus met het maken van filmmateriaal bezig willen houden? Wat heb je eraan? Wat zijn de mogelijkheden?  Vervolgens zal Paul ons een aantal tips geven m.b.t. filmen (met name compositie en interviewen). Als er tijd is zullen we dit zelf ook uit gaan proberen. Daarna zullen we in kleine groepjes bespreken en experimenteren hoe het gebruik van video bruikbaar zou kunnen zijn voor de aanwezigen. Omdat we beperkte tijd hebben zullen we weinig tijd besteden aan het daadwerkelijk editen van videomateriaal. Degenen die dat interessant vinden, hebben de mogelijkheid om met Paul apart nog een afspraak te maken om dit te leren.


And a film screening as part of the MUSTS colloquia series:

Unexpectedly, there was a window of opportunity to follow-up on Paul ’s work-in-progress seminar on developing the role of film as part of a research method in the humanities and he presented in the MUSTS colloquia series. We screened a selection of his short films as and about research including the film concerning the fascinating links between the history of embroidery and surgical skills—the one Craddock introduced us to last time: “A Film about Skin”. In addition, we screened films about DNA-RNA transformations performed as dance, the history of laparoscopic surgery, the epiploic cube, the history of the flush lavatory, the role of touch in pottery and music making, and more.

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