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

Conclusions: histories of women’s labour, photography, and the museum

The photographs contained within the BNI Papers can offer much to historians of twentieth-century neuroscience: glimpses into everyday practices of knowledge-making, self-conscious performances of scientific power and authority, speculative imaginings of technological advancement. Yet alongside these uses, which sit more or less comfortably with conventional narratives of scientific progress, these photographs can also reveal some of the disempowering ways in which women’s labour was framed, understood, and communicated to the outside world. Ultimately, these visual framings – of passive subjecthood, of wifely duty, of machine-like drudgery – are united by a single, dominant concern: agency. Each frame acts to reduce the historical agency of women employed at the BNI, either through an outright denial of an active role for them within the Institute’s research programme, or else by diluting their contributions through allusions to the private, the domestic, and the mechanical.

However, this is not to say that photographs of the BNI are blunt tools of misogyny, good only for hostile acts of academic deconstruction. Indeed, if, as current historians of photography contend, the meanings attributed to photographs are intrinsically tied to their physical, material and spatial circumstances, then perhaps more empowering possibilities for these images can be found in new techniques of historical analysis and public display (see McCredie, 2015; Ginsburg, 2016). For historians of science, the creation of new strategies to deal with the archival erosion of women remains a challenging proposition, one that requires a delicate balancing act between championing individual autonomy and recognising the coercive nature of gender norms and social structures (Lee and Logan, 2017). While women engaged in scientific labour certainly need to be elevated to the status of protagonists in their own histories – and not merely confined to the closing comments of biographies and obituaries dedicated to their more famous male colleagues – narratives of scientific triumph and achievement against the odds can only go so far. Equally important are those stories of wasted potential, limited opportunity and squandered talent (see Hicks, 2017, pp 232–236). Photographs that exist outside of familiar and comforting narratives of scientific advancement, depicting instead the mundane realities of everyday life within the laboratory, might provide a useful starting point for such a project.

While interrogating women’s agency through the medium of photography is difficult enough for the historian, it is a challenge of an entirely different order for the museum curator. How might a critical approach to photographic depictions of gendered labour play out in the galleries and exhibition spaces of the museum? How might curators not just increase the quantitative representation of women in depictions of scientific activity, but also encourage visitors to consider the unspoken rules and assumptions that can guide these very depictions? Any drive to encourage debates about the relationship between gender, scientific research and the photographic image must be accommodated within the daily realities of museum curation, a role that is perpetually caught between the desire to produce challenging and thought-provoking content and an inevitable constellation of political, institutional, bureaucratic, temporal, spatial and budgetary constraints (Edwards, 2001, pp 185–186).

Some strategies for deploying photography in a more critical fashion can be found in the recent findings of the photoCLEC (Photographs, Colonial Legacy and Museums in Contemporary European Culture) project, led by historians Elizabeth Edwards, Susan Legêne, and Sigrid Lien. Investigating the ways in which photographs have been utilised in museums to interrogate the European colonial past, researchers conducted case studies of display strategies that successfully encouraged visitors to look beyond the neutral façade of the photographic image and consider deeper, and often more uncomfortable, levels of political, social and economic meaning. These included the proximate grouping of photographs from different periods and locations to encourage visitors to compare, contrast and forge connections between them, artistic collaborations such as installations which deploy photographs outside of the neutral and authoritative register of the museum display to draw attention to competing and conflicting interpretations, and the inclusion of original photographic prints, negatives and reproductions to remind visitors of the physical materiality of the photograph as a historical object (photoCLEC, 2012; see also Edwards, 2010; Tinkler, 2011; Shields, 2015). However, as Elizabeth Edwards and Matt Mead (2013, pp 22–23) have noted, these ambitious experiments in display practices rarely survive the transition to permanent collections. Far more entrenched obstacles regarding the use of photographs in museums – ambiguous collection and retention policies, overstretched archival resources, the relatively marginal status of photographic expertise in museological training courses and job specifications – must be addressed before any profound changes in display practices can be expected (see also Edwards and Morton, 2015, pp 7–14).

This search for both ground-level and institutional solutions has consequences that extend far beyond the walls of the museum and archive. Despite next year marking the seventieth anniversary of the BNI’s founding, examinations of gendered inequality at the Institute show little sign of declining relevance. In 2017, despite the constitution of the British workforce rapidly approaching gender parity, just 23 per cent of core STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) positions are held by women (Office of National Statistics, 2018; WISE Campaign, 2017). These low levels of recruitment, retainment and career advancement among female science graduates have proven ‘a persistent puzzle’ for activists and policy-makers, a problem to which numerous causes have been attributed. These range from the lack of female role models and mentoring programmes, to hostile workplace environments and cultures, to disproportionate allocations of administrative, pastoral and teaching duties among female members of staff (Bilimoria, Lord and Marinelli, 2014; Bilimoria and Liang, 2014).

Given the complex and deeply embedded nature of these obstacles, which simultaneously demand political, social and legislative modes of redress, historians and curators might well feel powerless to contribute to attacks on the systematic underrepresentation of women in science. However, there is one commonly identified contributing factor that historical and museological expertise is particularly well-suited to address: the ‘masculine’ culture of scientific and technological research, which establishes the ideal practitioner as male and signals to prospective female candidates that they do not belong within the laboratory (Cheryan et al, 2017; van den Brink and Stobbe, 2014). Photographs of women working at the BNI, with their disempowering frames of reference, serve as an important reminder that such cultures are sustained not just through contemporary workplace practices, but also through acts of visual and historical transmission. By presenting past scientific achievements as stories of exclusively male enterprise, and casting women in largely incidental, unremarkable and easily replaceable roles, such images work to culturally enforce the marginalisation and exclusion of women within contemporary sites of research. Yet, by mobilising and displaying these photographs in new and unexpected ways, historians and curators can help to foster a critical language of gender and representation in images of scientific progress, thus transforming potentially disempowering artefacts into new platforms for dissent and critique. The alternative, it seems, is the continued devaluation of women’s labour within the archival record, impoverishing not just our view of the scientific past, but also the ethical and social possibilities of the scientific future.


The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Wellcome Trust, who funded this work through a Secondment Fellowship (208465/Z/17/Z). The author would also like to thank the Centre for the History of the Emotions, particularly Dr Helen Stark and Dr Jennifer Wallis, for their encouragement and support.

This article would not have been possible without the invaluable guidance of the Science Museum’s Archive Collections and Library Teams, with special thanks due to Beata Bradford, Amanda Johns, Hannah Nagle and Prabha Shah. The author would also like to thank Adam Boal, Tim Boon, Jessica Bradford, and Laura Humphreys for their support throughout the secondment. Many thanks are also due to the article’s reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments.

Finally, the author would like to acknowledge the generosity of the copyright holders who granted permission to use their images in this article, with particular thanks to Jeff Bolitho, Russell Burrows, the Gazette Series, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and David Riley.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181003/006