Books and Babies: Communicating reproduction
By Darren N Wagner
Human reproduction has perennially inspired inquiry and debate in medicine, science and society at large. The Books and Babies exhibition at the University of Cambridge in 2011 showed how books have been central to many key issues in the history of reproduction. A range of artefacts and books were displayed for the public as part of the Wellcome Trust-funded Generation to Reproduction project.
To minimise damage to the rare copies of centuries-old texts on display, the lighting at the Exhibition Centre at Cambridge University Library was dimmed, adding to the profound atmosphere. These objects were grouped into key themes relating to reproduction and generally represented early modern and modern Western history. Clear and thoughtful explanations on large placards accompanied each thematic display. These themes highlighted some of the historical and philosophical ideas about reproduction that the scholars in the Generation to Reproduction group have been working on, based at Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Moving through the exhibition, the viewer was confronted with the historical complexities that have been bound up with the reproduction of both humans and books. This double consideration gave added sophistication to the historical narrative implied by the gallery.
The first thematic display, ‘The Secrets of Women’, offered a spectacular historical range of artefacts, varying from a fertility figurine from Syria, 700–500 BCE, to the large and imposing folio-sized intaglio etched by Jan van Rymsdyk and shown in William Hunter’s landmark obstetrical atlas, The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, 1774.
After this demonstration of historical breadth that introduced considerations of gender politics, the second theme narrowed the focus onto ‘The Anatomy of Generation’. This display featured some fascinating early modern anatomical illustrations and the grand frontispiece of William Harvey’s De Generatione Animalium, 1651. The third theme, ‘From Generation to Reproduction’, ushered the viewer from 18th-century considerations of generation into 19th- century examinations of embryology. A volume set of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was included in this display, which gave a welcome nod to literary and cultural influences on reproduction.
‘Brave New World’ was the topic of the fourth display, which showed the late 19th- and early 20th-century eugenics movement through a variety of texts, including a 1927 copy of the pulp science-fiction magazine Amazing Stories. This issue featured ‘The Machine Man of Ardathia’, a story which included many cyborg details bridging the human and mechanical, such as ‘ectogenetic incubators’. Moving into more recent history, the next theme was ‘The Control of Life’, which presented debates about contraception from the 1960s onward. The most current reproductive issues were included in ‘Researching Reproduction’, which displayed news clippings, photographs and research notes about the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, who was born in 1978.
At this point, the chronological movement of the exhibition ceased, and the next display featured several editions of the medical advice manual Aristotle’s Masterpiece. By focusing on a single – albeit mutable – text, this display queried how such books on human generation were written, read and reproduced over a span of 250 years. This ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece’ case stood out as the most purposeful comment about the book reproduction aspect of the exhibit. The next theme was ‘The Ascent of Man’, which considered the 19th-century (and particularly Charles Darwin’s) legacy of the theory of evolution. The following display, ‘Extraordinary Births’, included a historical array of spectacular book illustrations of monstrous and sensational births. And the final case, ‘Population Arithmetick’, showed works dealing with population statistics; the earliest was William Petty’s book Political Arithmetick (1690) and the latest was a DVD of ZPG: Zero Population Growth (1972) – a sci-fi film directed by Michael Campus and with the premise of a future where the government introduces a ban on child-rearing. Lastly, there were two multimedia inclusions in the exhibit: video excerpts from the British Film Institute’s collection The Joy of Sex Education and a computer module that allowed access to the online complement of the exhibition.
As with any museum exhibition, there are a host of curatorial ideas and choices implicit in the displays. These are also aspects to think about constructively for future public engagement. Overall, the descriptions and selections for the ten themes were both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Some topics were presented in a somewhat neat and tidy fashion that could be interpreted by visitors as disregarding some of the complexities. One example would be ‘The Control of Life’, which implied that debates on birth control and abortion are specific to the late 20th century. Likewise, the shift from generation to reproduction was only partially explained; what actually changes with that shift in terminology was not made clear, especially for non-specialists. The most pronounced curatorial issue was that the rather restricted source of the objects and texts on display was left unacknowledged. Of course, these wonderful historical items reflect their particular situation as part of the University of Cambridge’s collections. Certainly, this history of human reproduction has a distinctly Cambridge, English flavour, as instanced by Darwin’s substantial representation and the negligible amount of non-British materials in the modern components of the exhibition. Nevertheless, the remarks in the visitors’ comment book, as well as my own impressions, are wholly appreciative of this wonderfully cogent and coherent show put on by the Generation to Reproduction group.
Books and Babies: Communicating reproduction ran from 7 July to 23 December 2011. Its online version remains available.
Darren N Wagner is a PhD student at the University of York (E email@example.com), currently writing up his thesis, ‘Exquisite Sense: Sexual reproduction, nervous physiology, and the culture of sensibility in Britain, c.1660–1780’.