Go back to article: Wired-up in white organdie: framing women’s scientific labour at the Burden Neurological Institute


The Burden Neurological Institute (BNI) is widely considered one of the central sites in the history of British neuroscience. Founded in 1939 to investigate the anatomy, functions, and disorders of the human brain, the BNI rapidly established a reputation as a world-leading centre of research and expertise. Due to the rich insights offered by the BNI Papers, held in the archives of the Science Museum, London, the work of the BNI has become a popular topic among historians of science and technology. However, one key omission in both the archival record and in subsequent historical accounts has been the BNI’s prominent employment of women as researchers, technicians and laboratory assistants. To address this absence, this article examines the comparatively underutilised photographic collections of the BNI Papers, in which women feature more prominently. However, rather than providing an unproblematic ‘window’ onto the experiences of these scientific workers, this article contends that the photographs in question ‘frame’ women’s labour in particular ways so as to devalue, obscure and erase their contributions to the BNI’s much-lauded achievements. The article considers three such frames: the objectification of women as the subjects, rather than the practitioners, of neuroscientific research; the elision of women’s scientific, domestic, and familial roles; and the visual equation of women’s labour with that of the machine. The article concludes by considering some of the ways in which critiques of visual framing might be integrated into both future historical accounts and museum display practices.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181003/001