Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A silver nose and synthetic legs

Prosthetic right eye. Credit: Natgoo, wikipedia creative commons.

What do a 19th century silver nose, 1960s prosthetic legs and a modern glass eye have in common? They're all part of the Wellcome Collection's Superhuman exhibition and they all put form before function.

The tag-line for the exhibition is 'exploring human enhancement', yet what makes these three items interesting is that they do not enhance the individual's physical capabilities. Take the 19th century silver nose which was worn by a woman whose nose was deformed by syphilis. It wouldn't have been able to sneeze or let her savour the smell of a bacon sandwich. It's purpose was purely aesthetic. The same is true of the unseeing eye we watch being blown in a glass-works, beautifully made but functionally useless.

Of course, form matters. This is something we all recognise when we wear towering heels despite the inevitable pain, or wear a suit and tie to a hot summer's wedding. The way we appear impacts on how we feel about ourselves, and how people react to us, thereby affecting how we are able to function within society. Yet sometimes aesthetic 'enhancements' aren't just functionally useless, they are debilitating.

This is personified by the prosthetic limbs provided for British children affected by thalidomide in the 1960s. Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant mothers suffering from morning sickness but unbeknown to mothers and doctors it affected limb development in the fetus. Children were born with shortened limbs and in an attempt to compensate them the government provided prosthetics. The examples on display in the Collection look like dolls legs, one pair even comes complete with beautiful ruby red leather shoes. 
Pair of artificial legs for a child. Roehampton, 1966. Credit: Science Museum, London.

Unfortunately the legs were about as functional as Barbie. This is illustrated in a video of little Louise Medus-Mansell, a young girl who was provided with a pair of legs. First we see her without the prosthetics, boldly bouncing around a room with all the confidence and energy of youth. Then we see her transformed by her engineered legs, warily navigating the room on crutches, precarious and unsure. Having already been affected by thalidomide, her mobility was then further limited by society's image of normality.

Contrasting with this tale of form over function, the summer of 2012 has seen society celebrating physical achievement with gusto. The competitors in the Olympics and Paralympics are achieving at the highest possible level- some with wonderfully crafted prosthetics, others with beautifully engineered bikes and some with nothing more than a pair of swimming shorts. What makes us avidly follow these varied sports is watching people achieve the impossible and seeing the human drama of years of dedication coming to a climax. There has been much talk of the legacy of London 2012- increased funding for sport in schools, people taking up sports they'd never heard of before. Perhaps an even better legacy would be to concern ourselves less with form and more with function. When the woman with the silver nose met her husband she felt free to stop wearing it- he loved her without it.

Superhuman runs at the Wellcome Collection from 19th July til 16th October. Well worth a visit. 

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