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

'Technology by Design'

Among the ten new galleries at the National Museum of Scotland is Technology by Design, which opened in July 2016. Located in a similar space below the previous site of Shaping our World, it once again aimed to showcase the Museum’s collection of upper limb prosthetics and Scotland’s impact in prosthetics. This time, however, we made a conscious effort to make full use of user stories alongside maker narratives.

Technology by Design as a gallery overall is overtly geared towards technical solutions to problems, from computing and sewing machines to bridges and bicycles. The ‘Engineering Humans’ section includes four tall arched cases highlighting mobility aides, devices that aid vision, upper limb prosthetics, lower limb prosthetics and artificial hips (see Figure 9). Adjacent displays exhibit wheelchairs and upright mobility, and they are supplemented with a touch table, ‘The Body Shop’, which allows visitors to touch implants such as a prosthetic testicle or a hip replacement. There is also a modern i-limb from Touch Bionics on display which is controlled by visitors via touch screen, much like the app used by wearers of the technology.

Figure 9

Colour photo montage of the Reconstructing Lives exhibition showing prosthetic display cases

'Engineering Humans', Technology by Design exhibition, National Museum of Scotland, 2016

When applied to medical technology there is a danger the overall theme of the gallery – design solutions for engineering problems – would be firmly within the medical model of disability. However, we reframed this element by focusing less on the ‘fixing of a problem’ and instead on the ongoing evolution of prosthetics and the influence of the users on the design. As a result, the display of prosthetics highlights the impact of particular moments in the evolution of the designs for different users: Simpson Series 1 and 2 were designed to be fitted to children; the EMAS arm was in principle modular so it could be adapted for different needs from a partial hand to a full arm; and Touch Bionics i-limb has features like touch screen ability, which reflected its users’ specific wants and needs for controllability.

Space was particularly limited in object labels in these cases. As a result, we chose to highlight user stories on the digital screen found in the middle of the four cases (see Figure 9). It included two videos: one of a 3D printed arm inspired by Iron Man and extracts from the video of Chris Moon that featured in the Reconstructing Lives exhibition. Pictures and quotes were also used to tell the story of the work of prosthetic personalisation from the Canadian company Alleles and ‘The Alternative Limb Project’ (see Figure 1, which featured in digital content rather than as an object). The screen also gave users who chose to reject the technologies space to tell their stories in their own words.

Allan Shannon, whose image as a boy using prosthetic arms featured on the wall in the Shaping our World gallery was one of two users of the Simpson series prosthetic arms whose story featured on our digital screen. While both users had positive comments about Simpson and his team, this was ultimately a story of non-use. In Shannon’s words:

[The arms were] a godsend in certain circumstances, as they gave us an insight into being able to look a bit more like the others and also helped us reach goals and manage to do things we could and were unable to do, for example, reach places we could never reach and try and look ‘a bit more normal’ when out in the community.[7]

He eventually rejected prosthetics, however: ‘When I got into my teenage years, these arms just got in the way of life. They [were] in the way of a rough and tumble life, and also unreliable. The second user, Yvonne Kavanagh, concurred:

My recollections are the hours spent practising to do the simple tasks of lifting bricks to eating and drinking. I could feed myself and write with them too […] but my first instinct was to use my feet. […] Approaching teenage years, the arms made me ‘look normal’ but were heavy and cumbersome for my small body frame. I needed help with dressing when wearing them, but without them I could manage independently – an important factor for a teenager to be independent.[8]

By the time Kavanagh was 18 she lived without the artificial arms entirely and performed everyday tasks with her feet, which she does to this day. Such choices have also been made by other thalidomide survivors: Eddie Freeman, whose assistive technologies fitted at Roehampton are held by the Science Museum, felt a sense of liberation when he exchanged his powered legs for a wheelchair (Emmens, 2003).

We tried to communicate the range of feelings and outcomes of those using prosthetics, and visitor evaluation found that ‘The area with the wheelchairs and prosthetics conveys the message “engineering is not just about big projects it is part of everyday life and affects people’s lives”’ (Muncie and Hutcheson, 2016). Nevertheless, common responses to the displays and the accompanying digital interpretation, were (firstly) surprise, and (secondly) that the people featured were ‘inspirational’. ‘It’s amazing to see a whole area about disability featured within a museum’, was one typical example. ‘I’ve never seen that before. It’s inspirational. The people featured within the touchscreen are also inspirational. There is a young girl and I remember about thalidomide so it was interesting to see her story’ (Muncie and Hutcheson, 2016). Our efforts to display the everyday experience of a user may not have been furthered by the choice of backdrop to these displays, which featured an athlete wearing a running blade (see Figure 9).

Our findings chimed with the feedback we had from War, Art and Surgery, Shaping our World, and Reconstructing Lives, as well as other UK exhibitions. A study on feedback across nine projects co-ordinated by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester ‘designed to offer and elicit support of new ways of understanding disability’ found that of four main forms of feedback one was that of the ‘heroic survivor’, with comments discussing the inspirational nature of those featured. However, they noted in their discussions that highlighting these ‘inspirational’ stories ‘should not automatically be avoided by museums since heroic acts are as much a part of disability history as they are mainstream history’ (Dodd et al, 2010, pp 92, 107–8).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170806/006