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

'Reconstructing Lives'

We have used these artefacts in three very different displays across two sites. We staged Reconstructing Lives: A Human Technology at the National War Museum of Scotland, located in Edinburgh Castle in 2012–13. We emphasised conflict-related amputation, including serving and veteran military personnel and civilians. The exhibition involved loans as well as the Museum’s material, and did not focus on designs which had been developed and made in Edinburgh. Rather, we traced the larger narrative of the development of the prosthetic limbs, from armour-like iron hands of the sixteenth century through to carbon-fibre running blades in the twenty-first. As far as possible we used the amputees’ own stories in the interpretation as well as the technical description of the artificial limbs. (All the prosthetic users featured had acquired rather than congenital limb loss.)

The exhibition presented several strands: the prostheses themselves; personal and technical images and video; and quotes from users and makers that were varied and sometimes contradictory. Text provided a general overview of the subject in major text panels, as well as brief vignettes of military amputees from three different centuries. More technical information about the prostheses themselves was available in the object labels. This permitted our visitors to engage with the exhibition at different levels of detail and acquire complete stories without reading all the levels of text.

The human story included a film created for the exhibition showing Chris Moon MBE talking very directly about his personal experience with prosthetics after he lost his arm and leg while clearing landmines in Mozambique, and how he went on to become an ultramarathon runner. When set alongside the story of Spitfire pilot Douglas Bader (who wore two aluminium prosthetic legs) and present-day athletes, the ‘superhuman’ narrative was clearly evident; but we were also careful to include mundane contrasts. ‘There are no superpowers in the hand’, commented Sergeant Juan Arredondo, one of the first i-limb wearers, in 2008, ‘it just makes life more normal’.[3] So too Lieutenant Dave Henson explained in 2011, ‘After being in a wheelchair it was so good to be stood up. I didn’t care if I was basically wearing buckets on my stumps’ (Thompson, 2011). We barely mentioned stories that might balance any sense of triumphalism, such as those individuals who struggle to adapt after amputation; it would in any case have been difficult to include them.

While Reconstructing Lives balanced the technological development of prosthetic limbs with the personal stories of the people who wear them, the exhibition did not present the prosthetics and personal stories together. The exhibition featured a large central showcase which enabled the prostheses to be displayed without the human context, as visually striking mechanical objects that stand on their own and speak in their own way (see Figure 6). Shown side by side the prosthetics selected for the exhibition illustrate the key developments in materials and design of this medical technology. The personal stories of wearing prosthetic limbs were presented in what we hoped was a sensitive manner, away from the prosthetics, enabling the visitors to engage easily with their human and emotional impact (see Figure 7). The human forms of these artefacts make them easy for visitors to relate to and engage with, and they had space to be considered in relation to each other. The minimal interpretation with each object provides space for visitors to consider them on their own terms.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a display case in an exhibition containing prosthetic limbs

Reconstructing Lives exhibition, National War Museum of Scotland, 2012

Figure 7

Colour photograph of a display wall in the Reconstructing Lives exhibition

Reconstructing Lives exhibition, National War Museum of Scotland, 2012

Feedback was positive, whether from general Edinburgh Castle audiences or more focused visitors, including bioengineers, therapists, military personnel and amputees. We received favourable comments about the inclusion of this topic in the context of a war museum and on the sensitivity and power of our presentation. A number reflected on the complexity of the topic, beyond the obvious horrors of war; others on how inspirational they found the featured amputees:

What a fantastic exhibition. Certainly something that has been approached in a sensitive yet positive way. More exhibitions like this should be made available for educating people!
(Visitor from Newcastle, 5 June 2012)

Galling and fascinating exhibition. Thank you for the time and care taken to present this record, and for the respectful way in which the exhibits are presented.
(Visitor from Glasgow, 12 March 2013)

Illuminating aspect about consequences of conflict, but especially excellent in raising awareness about the effort to help those who suffer amputations to continue their lives, perhaps in a new positive manner. A very innovative topic to present in a museum, which I am sure attracts a lot of interest & support.
(Visitor from Malta, 20 July 2012)[4]

As a representation of disability, there is no doubt that Reconstructing Lives had strong elements of a medical model: we set out to represent technical answers to practical and social needs, and to appreciate the range of solutions and innovation through the ages which has enabled people to rebuild their lives. But we took care to present these as tangible human problems, focusing on how prosthetic limbs allow wearers to accomplish things they could not do without them. The powerful relationship between user and maker was evident. Chris Moon said in the video he recorded for us, ‘Of course the fabulous people who make and provide the artificial limbs are probably the more important people in my life, because I can’t get up and get on with life and earn a living and get around if I don’t have artificial limbs’.[5]

But in this, as in all exhibitions, visitors find their own nuances:

Reconstructing Lives […] has made a permanent impression in my memory [reflected one blogger]. They examined the reality of modern warfare; life after the conflict. And, in the case of the exhibit, life with a prosthetic. There have been so many technological developments in military medical practice that more and more soldiers are surviving, while in any other period in history their injuries would have killed them. But, as the exhibit discussed, even though we can perform more complex surgeries and save more lives, the infrastructure for dealing with the lives we’ve given back is, well, a work in progress. (Victoria, 2012)

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170806/004