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

'Shaping our World'

While Reconstructing Lives was viewed within a military context in the National War Museum, other prosthetic limbs were on display in a civilian setting a kilometre away at the National Museum of Scotland. Shaping our World was a science and technology display in a Victorian wing of the Museum, with display cases in front of large wall banners. Prosthetics were chosen to feature in this gallery to showcase the recently acquired collection and because of their visual impact. One case, and the adjacent wall, presented the story of the development of upper limb prostheses in Edinburgh, from the Simpson arms to the i-limb.

The gallery opened in 2011. It was text rich, which allowed us to have four stories in this display. One described the technical challenges of designing and making a successful prosthetic limb, while the other three focused on thalidomide’s impact, the Edinburgh design work, and Campbell Aird’s EMAS. David Gow helped us, and reviewed the gallery text. In preparing the exhibition we were conscious that the engineering work which went into the limbs did not always ensure successful long-term use. The EMAS arm was a one-off which could only be maintained in use for 18 months. We used Aird’s testimony: ‘this is probably 15 or 20 years ahead of its time. It will enable me to do simple things like tie my own shoelaces instead of asking somebody to do it’ (quoted in Maguire, 1998). This was a celebratory story, from an adult who had acted as a partner in the full trial of this arm.

Not all users had such positive experiences. We were highly conscious that many children affected by thalidomide had stopped using prostheses as they moved towards adulthood (as detailed below). We considered a quote from Parliament by child psychiatrist Gerard Vaughan MP, who sat on the Thalidomide Compensation Committee and was later health minister: ‘One sees a small child coming into a room looking like a deep-sea diver dressed up in a mechanical abortion; and at the first opportunity he throws the whole lot off because he says it is intolerable to him’ (Hansard, 1972). There was understandable resistance to this tone from our stakeholders involved in artificial limb design, however, and given that the quote did not relate specifically to the work in Edinburgh, we instead addressed user rejection of prostheses in a more positive way. ‘Many of the children born without arms rejected prostheses and became skilled at using their feet’, we wrote in the gallery text, ‘though Edinburgh had a comparatively low rejection rate. This was credited to the revolutionary control system they developed.’[6]

Shaping our World did, however, result in a far richer understanding of user experience by serendipity. In 2014, we were contacted by Allan Shannon, who had been told that his picture featured in the gallery as a small boy with prosthetic arms (see Figure 8). He told us more about how much he appreciated what the prosthetic designers had been attempting to do, but also why he had stopped wearing the limbs. We have since been able to incorporate this narrative into the most recent manifestation of the permanent display, Technology by Design.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of a male and a female thalidomide patient standing in front of an exhibition display wall

Yvonne Kavanagh and Allan Shannon in Shaping our World, below a picture of Allan as a boy, 2014

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170806/005