Body Parts at Barts: the autopsy…

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September 18, 2013 by Victorian Body Parts Conference

Artificial left hand, c.1880-1920, wood with metal wrist plate and leather glove.  Wellcome Library exhibit no A653506, used under Creative Commons Licence

Artificial left hand, c.1880-1920, wood with metal wrist plate and leather glove. Wellcome Library exhibit no A653506, used under Creative Commons Licence

Look, I know we’re not meant to actually say this, but, well… it was a triumph.

And all because of the beautiful concordance of stellar papers delivered, scintillating questions asked, the backdrop of floating organs, and a definite sense of a critical mass (aka tumour, sorry, couldn’t resist) on the topic within our disciplines. Yes #partsatbarts left us with an enormous amount more to think about and research, and quite a few leftover biscuits to consume while doing so. Preferably not while thinking about the baby skeleton that the wonderful Carla, the curator, had got out “specially for the event”. Suffice to say, it was special.

People came from all over the country (and the world, thanks Katharina!) to contribute in their own ways to the event.

The conference began with a panel of two of our keynote speakers: Katharina Boehm (Regensburg) on the body of the child as a tool within Victorian medico-psychical discourses, and Kate Hill (Lincoln) on the skull’s potency within the developing fields of archaeology and anthropology in nineteenth-century museum culture, which got the day off to a fantastically thought-provoking start.

Ellery Foutch (Courtauld) then opened the ‘Severed Parts’ session with a paper on the afterlife of bodybuilder George Sandow in casts of his legendary body, followed by Graeme Pedlingham (Sussex) on how hysteria discourses apply themselves to the disembodied limb in a neglected gem of the fin-de-siècle gothic. Catherine Oakley (York) concluded the panel with her work on comic dismemberment in early film and the concomitant malleability of the cinematic medium, and beautifully deployed some of Georges Méliès’ work to the delight of everyone present.

Panel two centred on ‘Prosthetic Parts’, begun by Clare Stainthorp (Birmingham) who analysed the work of a pioneer of a prosthesis in relation to the nuances of gender, class, and contemporary disability studies. Ryan Sweet (Exeter) exposed the surprisingly frequent appearances of the prosthesis-as-weapon in fiction, and Emma Curry (Birkbeck) leapt from fragment to fringe in her analysis of the appearance of hair in Dickens’ creative work and correspondence.

Lisa Coar (Leicester) opened the final panel on ‘Gendered Parts’ with her of the ‘discorporation’ of tight-laced men in nineteenth-century culture, while scrutiny by Ally Crockford (Edinburgh) of diphallicism – look it up – in medical literature on congenital birth defects was a neat counterpoint to the day’s analysis of the artificial shapings of the body. Finally, Beatrice Bazell (Birkbeck) analysed the cultural interplay of focus and corsetry in shaping the mid-Victorian photographed female body.

Tiffany Watt-Smith (QMUL) concluded the day with her work on the mutual fascination of the theatre and science in analysing Victorian ideas about imitation and mimicry.

And we couldn’t have got through the day, or kept everyone so full of tea and biscuits, without our erudite and fabulous friend Belle Stennett, author of the beards ballot, and eighteenth-century PhD extraordinaire. The voting continues apace, so go and show your appreciation!

Now, if that condensed run-down of the day hasn’t got you scuttling to the library like Thing from the Addams family, nothing will. We’re immensely grateful to all of you who came and contributed your knowledge and curiosity, and hope to see the further development of all this research.

We’ve also got plans to keep the blog going (and even do some video blogging, lord help us) so please do submit your entries, ideas, images and suggestions for a future #partsparty. Our YouTube channel is imaginatively dubbed ‘Victorian Body Parts‘, and our Google+ page can be found here, so keep your glass eyes peeled for future news from us!

Beatrice and Emma

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