Go back to article: Prosthetic limbs on display: from maker to user


In their own way, we hope these projects in three museums have contributed to the uneven but welcome developments in UK museum theory and practice represented by Ryan Seary’s artificial leg (see Figure 1). Disability and disabled people are slowly featuring more, and being normalised, in a range of museum displays and programmes. Some of this has been a result of the more thoughtful activity commemorating the First World War, much of which used the past to reflect on the present. ‘Prosthetic devices’, writes curator Katherine Ott, ‘illustrate both the human cost of war and the uneasy intimacy of technology and flesh’ (Ott, 2005, p 48). Projects like War, Art and Surgery and Wounded have represented veterans with acquired disabilities, physical or otherwise. Like medical museums more generally, they move away from the unproblematic framing of those who wear prosthetics as patients, towards framing them as users. As Ott presented in her exhibition Whatever Happened to Polio? (National Museum of American History, 2005; see Sandell, 2007; Ott, 2010), they set out to present not the medicalisation of disability but the experience of use. In technology studies scholarship and museums more generally, users have a higher profile, bridging the gap between curator and visitor.

But let us not congratulate ourselves as a sector just yet. We used this article to reflect on how users were represented in our practice, and even from this partial sample of recent projects two tensions are especially evident. The first is the struggle to chart a course between the Scylla of valorisation and the Charybdis of victimhood. Although Reid, Shannon, Moon and other users perform acts every day that others might consider superhuman – few of us can use our feet so nimbly as Kavanagh – not every prosthetic user wants to run marathons or compete in the Paralympics. Conversely, neither should users be portrayed as passive recipients of medico-technical assistance. We are pleased that our visitors were inspired by the stories told in Technology by Design and the other exhibitions. But we also want to emphasise the everyday; and we maintain that this endeavour is best served by using the stories and voices of the users themselves. Future projects that follow War, Art and Surgery, which so sensitively depicted those who were learning to use prosthetics, could build in ways to capture their words. Their testimony, we argue, normalises the situation shown without distracting from the ‘stoic endurance demonstrated by injured people during rehabilitation’ (Midgley, 2014, p 284).

The second tension is especially felt by science museums, which have often played the role of shrines to the technical solution. Just as the RCS is proud of the technical development of surgery, so too National Museums Scotland rightly highlights the Scottish contribution to prosthetics. But we should not be afraid of exploring the disadvantages of technology, the problems of science, technology and medicine. Prosthetics can be liberating, but not always: Kavanagh’s and Shannon’s choice not to use the artificial limbs so painstakingly developed is an important story to tell, without diminishing the achievements of the clinicians and engineers. Just as in the nearby gallery, Energise, we present pollution alongside power generation, so too we should not shy away from the downsides and limitations of medical technology.

We should also be wary of curatorial indulgence, or overcompensation for previous interpretation. Our visitors, after all, are unlikely to be thinking of the narratives we are seeking to move away from. Many visitors appreciate the technophilic function of museums, they like to see the first, the original, the prototype. In our experience, prosthetic users are interested to see the technical development of the devices they live so closely with; and like Moon, many are intensely appreciative of the work of prosthetists. We don’t deny that inventors, scientists and doctors are important stakeholders – and they visit too. Even if the early Simpson devices were not fit-for-purpose for teenage Shannon and Kavanagh, they gave rise to the EMAS that worked for Aird. And even if EMAS was a one-off, it enabled the development of the i-limb. With care, progress narratives can be woven around and balanced by stories of users, use and non-use. Technical and human stories can be profitably and engagingly entwined. The medical model of disability is problematic, but so too is a purely social approach: amputees and thalidomide survivors do live with impairments, and for some, a technical fix is welcome. ‘If the histories of medicine, the body, and rehabilitation constitute the intellectual skin of the prosthesis’, argues Ott, ‘then surely technology contributes the scaffolding’ (2002, p 16).

These particular technical artefacts happen to be visually striking, rich in meaning from their human-like shape alone, and the cultural associations of robots, cyborgs and other humanoid machines. We are pleased to have been involved in sharing them with museum visitors – but keen that they serve to introduce more complex and layered interpretations. We have learned a lot from the clinicians, designers and users we have had the privilege to meet during these projects; and to address the question we posed at the outset, we feel we have been involved in projects that have presented balanced accounts of use and experience alongside technical and clinical narratives. But we have also shown that there remains a long way to go. Our next step is to apply this to future endeavours – and perhaps there is more work to be done with the Artificial Limb Project…

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170806/007