Art Hx X Confabulations, April 2022

curative/spaces: Art Hx 2022 Symposium

Thursday 28th April 2022. 15.45 to 17.15 BST / 10:45am to 12:15pm EDT

Online: registration and full conference schedule via the Art Hx website

Convened by Art Hx and bringing together artists, curators, writers, organizers, and academics, curative/spaces offers a forum for the exploration of the relationships between race, space, and healthcare through the lens of art and design. Panelists will consider the many implications of these intersections while also reflecting upon their implications for communities’ access to resources, meanings about the body, and our understandings and conceptions of healthcare. 

Confabulations is delighted to be partnering with Art Hx to present a curated panel of outstanding early career scholars, drawing on our networks with researchers in a number of UK-based critical medical humanities networks. This panel will focus on the inter-relations between health, space and race in archives and museums, with a particular focus on medical photography and medical museum collections.

Michaela Clark, Studio Encounters: The Spaces of Clinical Photography in Cape Town, South Africa.

Clinical photographs often serve as supplementary sources in the history of medicine (Mifflin 2007). Harnessed in the past for the purposes of medical record-keeping, education, and publication, historical images of this kind can be seen to offer insight into disease discourses, institutional practices, and even patient experiences.[1] However, while the images themselves have drawn much research attention, little has been said about the spatial conditions in which they were produced.

This presentation seeks to amend this omission by diving into what Ariella Azoulay (2008) calls the ‘photographic encounter’ within a specific local context, the Old Groote Schuur Hospital, which opened in Cape Town, South Africa in 1938. In looking beyond the clinical photograph as an image, it attends to the circumstances, considerations, and concerns related to how such material was produced at a time when the profession (of clinical photography) and state-sanctioned segregation (of apartheid) were being institutionalized. By grappling with medical hierarchies and racial dynamics within the space of the photographic studio in a South African hospital, my aim is to unravel the power relations imbedded in the moment when doctor, photographer and patient would have been located around the clinical camera at the Old Groote Schuur. Ultimately, addressing this dimension of medical photography offers a means to shine a light on the spatial and social relations of clinical photographic encounters in Cape Town.


Azoulay, A. 2008. The Civil Contract of Photography. London: Zone Books.

Mifflin, J. 2007. Visual Archives in Perspective: Enlarging on Historical Medical Photographs. The American Archivist 70(1), Spring/Summer: 32-69.

1] See the work of Georges Didi-Huberman (1982), Sander Gilman (1985; 1987; 1988), Mark Jackson (1995), Erin O’Connor (1999), Nancy Stepan (2001), Jeremy Mifflin (2007), Minneke te Hennepe (2007), Suzannah Biernoff (2010; 2011; 2012; 2016; 2017), Beatriz Pichel (2010; 2017), Caroline Bressey (2002; 2006; 2011), Anne Perez Hattori (2011), Katherine Rawling (2011), Glen Ncube (2012), Susan Sidlauskas (2013), Elizabeth Laing (2014), Jane Nicholas (2014), Rory du Plessis (2014; 2015), Sally Swartz (2015), Zeynep Devrim Gürsel (2018), and Stephen Kenny (2020).

Michaela Clark is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), University of Manchester. Her training in Visual Culture Studies (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) where she has worked as lecturer, student supervisor, course coordinator and blended learning designer. Her ongoing doctoral project focuses on a 20th century collection of clinical surgery photographs held at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Pathology Learning Centre in South Africa.

Chimwemwe Phiri, Refiguring the Visual Archive of Tropical Medicine: Race, Patienthood and the Afterlives of Medical Collections from Malawi and Sudan.

My paper draws on archival material related to two former British colonial medical officers. I will begin by contextualizing the two collections, looking at the socio-political environments in which the photographs were produced, and circulated to show how they fostered a specific colonial scientific vision. 

The second part of my paper unpacks the process of conducting an ethnography of the colonial archive. I will place the meaning of the archive to me as a researcher and as someone who is connected to the place of origin and my role in the process of return. I will detail my experience researching historic sources kept in two settings (the UK and Malawi), highlighting the social, epistemological and logistical constraints to accessing archival material.  

Finally, I will discuss contemporary meanings of the collections, looking at encounters with the colonial archive by individuals who come from the countries the collections were sourced. In 2018, the Malawian artist Samson Kambalu created a series of artworks entitled the African Cowboy that moved the collections from a medical space to a curative one that fractured the meanings of patienthood and scientific readings rendered on the African body. From October 2021 to February 2022, I did a “visual repatriation” in Malawi where I worked with a range of people including visual artists, health practitioners and local archivists to interpret the historical material. I will discuss how moving the archive across institutional, curative and hegemonic spaces ask us to ponder who has the right to use archival material. 

Chimwemwe Phiri is a third-year doctoral researcher in medical anthropology and visual history at Durham University. Her research examines the legacies of two medical photographic collections related to two former British colonial medical officers that are held in four UK based archives. Using archival research, visual analysis and curatorial practice across Malawi and Sudan, her PhD project explores histories of race, violence, the ethical dimensions of medical photography, questions of ownership and the afterlives of archival material. 

Shelley Angelie Saggar, Researching culturally sensitive items in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum Collections.

Arguably one of the most significant collections of medical artefacts in the world, Henry Wellcome’s Historical Medical Museum was intended to tell the comprehensive story of mankind’s approach to health, from the hall of “primitive medicine,” right through to the most sophisticated healing technologies of the day. Since Wellcome’s death in 1936, the collection of over a million objects has been dispersed to museums in the UK and around the world, but its significance has largely been eclipsed by the biomedical focus of the Wellcome Trust. This paper situates Wellcome’s collecting vision within the context of traditional approaches to organizing and presenting the history of medicine, with its inherent connections to teleological narratives of hierarchy and civilizational “progress.” I go on to outline how Wellcome Collection is attempting to address the colonial histories of the items still in the collection today. This initiative – to research items in the collection that may be classed as “sacred,” “secret” or otherwise culturally sensitive by their communities of origin – began in 2019 in conjunction with the Science Museum. Through a case study of the plaster cast of the face of a Māori man displayed in Wellcome’s permanent exhibition, Medicine Man, I consider what it means for science and medicine museums to embark on the work of addressing (post)colonial history, and how this measures alongside the contested debates that surround both institutions – particularly when working with Indigenous material and communities.

Shelley Angelie Saggar is a CHASE funded PhD researcher and museum worker based across the School of English and the Centre for Indigenous and Settler-Colonial Studies at the University of Kent. Her project examines reclamations and contestations of the museum in Native American and Māori film and literature. She also works as a collections researcher at the Science Museum and Wellcome Collection, where she focuses on developing protocols for managing culturally sensitive items in the historical medical collections.

Sadie Levy Gale, ‘The Mother Hospital of the Empire’: Imperial Visions of St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Throughout Britain’s interwar years, London’s oldest hospital – Saint Bartholomew’s – established a reputation as “the Mother Hospital of the Empire,” a descriptor used liberally in fundraising appeals for the reconstruction of the hospital’s buildings. This paper seeks to analyze visual representations of the hospital in a selected number of these fundraising appeals, to explore the interrelationship between healthcare spaces and British imperialism in the early twentieth century. By attending to the visual framing of St Bart’s as a spectacular feature within London (the Empire’s imperial capital), I will offer insights into how the health of the British population was seen as synonymous with the strength and longevity of the British Empire and its metropoles.

This paper will also trace how images of St Bart’s hospital were projected and disseminated across imperial networks. Many of the St Bart’s fundraising appeals were published in Illustrated London News, a publication that was circulated across the British Empire. An examination of the magazine’s colonial readership will open up considerations of how “mother hospitals” like St Barts were viewed as an imperial product that could be reproduced in different colonial contexts, in the form of new health spaces like clinics and hospitals. I will also explore how in return, the recruitment of medical students from across the Empire strengthened St Bart’s reputation as a site of imperial and biomedical power. Through such analyses, my paper will uncover how imperial approaches to healthcare predicated on Britain’s medical and scientific supremacy paved the way for racialized discourses of public health that still have repercussions today.

Sadie Levy Gale is a Ph.D. candidate at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture as part of an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with Bristol University and Historic England. Her research examines visual representations of empire, healthcare and the built environment in England in the inter-war and post-war period, using photographic archives as a key source. Sadie’s project focuses particularly on Historic England’s Topical Press Agency medical photography collection, as well as the Illustrated London News and Picture Post archives. She is interested in how press photography constructed and disseminated an imperial vision of Britain’s medical, environmental and moral supremacy in the first half of the twentieth century.

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