Visualising the Medical Humanities: A Symposium

Rebecca Blake discusses ‘Visualising the Medical Humanities: A Symposium’ at the Centre for Art History and Theory, School of Art and Design at the Australian National University, 22 July 2021.

Visualising the Medical Humanities: A Symposium was held at the Centre for Art History and Theory, School of Art and Design at the Australian National University on the 22 July 2021. A hybrid event, presented online and in-person, was organised by Dr. Keren Hammerschlag and supported by the Australian National University’s Futures Scheme. Scholars, artists and curators working in diverse fields came together to share their research on topics related to the emerging field of the visual medical humanities. The thought-provoking papers reflected recent developments in the field, opening lines of enquiry and forging connections across a broad network encompassing museum studies, curatorship, art history and art practice, bioethics and health sciences, anthropology and the history and philosophy of medicine.

The presentations explored the rich expanse of innovation across the field of visual medical humanities, investigating topics that included disability, pain, mental health, eugenics, gender and sexual sciences, anatomy, disease, representations of the body, ethics, and civil rights issues. Referencing a diverse variety of visual source materials, the conversations that arose from the event expansively revealed the prosperous contributions that analysis of visual and material culture can make to medical humanities.

Image designed by Abbie Holbrook, Australian National University

The symposium commenced the evening prior with a thought-provoking online lecture, Tales of the Unbeautiful: The Elephant Man as modern fable, from the international keynote speaker, Dr. Suzannah Biernoff from the History of Art Department at Birkbeck, University of London. Biernoff discussed the politics of representing neurofibromatosis and other potentially disfiguring conditions in cinematography through an examination of David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. Her interrogation of popular culture deftly revealed how the dominant portrayal of those afflicted by disfigurement was framed through themes of ugliness and inner beauty. Exploring aesthetic culture through the personal affective dimensions of afflictions, she connected these cinematographic representations to social developments at a time when disfigurement was becoming classified as a physical disability and as a civil rights issue.

The first panel of the day presented a series of three case studies on the medical application of visual medical humanities as a mode of emotional and physical therapy, bringing to light formative conversations about the intersection between theory and the practical methodologies of biomedicine. Dr. Claire Hooker, from the University of Sydney, presented Paint the Pain: Exploring Theoretical Bases from the Medical Humanities to the Applied Arts. Exploring the intersections between the applied arts and health through the successful research project Paint the Pain, her paper revealed the potential benefits of guided, group visual arts creation as a therapy for patients waitlisted for chronic pain treatment.

Dr. Vahri McKenzie, from the University of Canberra, presented Sketching the Sweet Spot: Visual Arts in ADF ARRTS Program. Her paper provided a synopsis of the current four-week intensive visual arts practice program on art recovery, resilience, teamwork and skills (ARRTS) at the University of Canberra (UCA). McKenzie’s presentation on the program, which was developed for ill or injured serving military personnel and has been hosted biannually at UCA since 2015, revealed the transformative benefits of visual arts through group painting, drawing and sculpture workshops.

Dr. Nicole Sully, from the University of Queensland, presented Aesthetic Headaches and the Transformation of the Art Museum. Outlining the prevalence of headaches and associated neck and back pain experienced by visitors to art museums in the late nineteenth century, Sully indicated how these ailments were caused through crowding, airless conditions and eye strain from dense, layered hangs within gallery spaces. Her fascinating paper provided a historical account of the “academy headache” and outlined current, contemporary strategies to ease these afflictions through the development and implementation of considered exhibition curation, design and architecture.

The second panel, convened by Dr. Robert Wellington, discussed case studies centred around a single-individual as a methodology of research. Dr. Micaela Pattison, from the Australian National University, presented The Visual Archive of a Eugenic Modern Girl from Interwar Spain on Hildegart Rodríguez Carballeira (1914-1933). Hildegart was a Spanish activist for socialism and sexual reform who was raised by her mother to be a eugenic model of the ideal woman. Pattison’s engaging analysis of portraits from the visual archive exposed how Hildegart carefully constructed her public image in order to portray herself as a prime example of the eugenic child and promote her research on social reform. Dr. Natasha Fijn, from the Australian National University’s Mongolia Institute, then presented Visualising Mongolian Medicinal Knowledge. Her anthropological analysis of Mongolian herders’ medicinal knowledge was positioned through an ethnographic case-study of herding elder Shagdar and his extensive knowledge of local plants, elucidating the social benefits and complexities surrounding the application of plant-based medicine.

The third panel, convened by Susannah Russell, was a highly thought-provoking session that presented three research projects that analysed key events and theoretical movements in the history of medicine. Dr. Katie Sutton, from the Australian National University, and Dr. Birgit Lang, from the University of Melbourne, collaboratively presented The Ethics of the Visual Turn: Experts and their Subjects in the fin-de-siecle Sexology and Criminology. Their paper interrogated gender, sexuality and the body though photographic and text-based case studies on sexual science, criminology and anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century. With a focus on German-language sources, their joint paper uncovered complex layers and raised questions about the relationships between experts and their subjects in light of sexologies visual turn.

Dr. Elizabeth Stephens, from the University of Queensland presented The Incubator Babies of Coney Island: Science, Spectacle and Sentimentality in the American Amusement Park on the fascinating ‘infant incubator’ exhibitions of premature newborns by Dr. Martin Couney at Coney Island in the first half of the twentieth century. The displays, which started in 1903, were designed as a heart-warming display to cultivate a sentimental attitude towards the babies on show and functioned at the intersection of commerce, medicine, and spectacle. Mortality rates for very premature babies in this period were as high as 80-90% and Coney’s exhibitions were the only place in the United States where incubators were available for premature babies until the technology was introduced to hospitals in the mid-1940s. The enlightening paper highlighted how the exhibitions, despite ethical complexities, provided the most progressive development of neonatal care in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.

Dr. Fae Brauer, from the University of East London, presented Exposing the Venereal Peril: Fournier’s Syphilography and Picasso’s Syphilitic Bodies. Through a chronological history of Albert and Edmond Fournier’s publications and wax sculptures of patients afflicted by syphilis, Brauer elucidated how Fournier implemented a public policy through visual imagery that was designed to ignite fear. The paper revealed the greater social undercurrents that were likely to have influenced Picasso’s representation of persons afflicted with the debilitating disease, capturing individuals at different stages of syphilitic infection in his paintings and drawings of patients, most notably in the 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

The fourth panel, which I convened, featured papers by visual artists discussing their artistic engagement with the medical humanities within their visual arts practice. Dr. Nina Sellars, a visual artist and curator of the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne, presented The Delinquent Museum: The Art of Offending Well. Using the visual archives of anatomy, Sellars presented contemporary artworks and ideas that challenged preconceived views of the human anatomical body and explored the junctures between art, medicine, and science.

Dr. Erica Seccombe, visual artist and senior lecturer at the Australian National University, presented Hospitals, Community and Nature, a talk about her role as a community consultant and artist for the Campbelltown Hospital redevelopment. Her paper revealed how the implementation of collaborative projects through workshops enabled the local community to actively participate in the redevelopment of the hospital spaces. Seccombe’s large-scale wall drawings for the hospital were developed through community consultation and integrated elements of the natural landscape as well as local edible and medicinal plants into the design, developing peaceful yet functional architectural spaces that enhance the healing process.


For information on upcoming events as well as recordings of the keynote lecture and the panel presentations please contact Dr. Keren Hammershlag:

Rebecca Blake is a PhD candidate at the Centre of Art History and Theory, School of Art and Design at the Australian National University. Her ongoing research focuses on botanical pharmacology and medicine in contemporary Australian art.

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