We welcomed 1372 visitors through the doors of the Conceiving Histories exhibition in November and December 2017. Amongst the many generous comments in the Peltz Gallery visitors’ book, people described the exhibition as: ‘compassionate’, ‘moving’, incredible’, ‘fascinating’, ‘evocative’, ‘heart-breaking’, ‘haunting’ and ‘emotional’.
Anna and Isabel took around six tour groups, hosted a gallery launch and an academic/artist symposium, The Pregnant Archive, with Dr Emma Cheatle of Newcastle. We took part in the Being Human Festival, the UKs first national festival for humanities research.
We are sending out copies of our exhibition catalogue to those who couldn’t make it but would have liked to. If you would like a free copy contact Isabel (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your name and address and she’ll send one to you.
Isabel spoke to the amazing Natalie Silverman at the Fertility Podcast about the project in the lead up to our exhibition.
Four visitors were inspired to write blog posts about the exhibition:
THE PREGNANT ARCHIVE: Materialising Conception to Birth 30 November–1 December 2017
Two-day symposium and collaborative workshop, Birkbeck, University of London
Organised by Dr Emma Cheatle (Newcastle University) and Dr Isabel Davis (Birkbeck, UoL)
Funded by Newcastle University and Wellcome/Birkbeck ISSF.
DAY 1: THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2017
Introduction to exhibition, Conceiving Histories, by the artist Anna Burel
11:30 Introduction to the PREGNANT ARCHIVE by Isabel Davis and Emma Cheatle
11:45 Session 1: QUESTIONS OF CONCEPTION [Chair Isabel Davis]
20 minute papers from Shrikant Botre, Sara Read, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn
12:45 Questions and discussion
16:00 Session 3: BIRTH SPACES [Chair Emma Cheatle]
20 minute papers from Hermione Wiltshire, Sarah Fox, Edwina Attlee, Cathy McClive
17: 20 Questions and discussion
17: 50 Organisers’ Remarks
18:00 Drinks in the Peltz Gallery followed by dinner
DAY 2: FRIDAY 1 DECEMBER 2017
10:15 Session 4: MATERIALS OF PREGNANCY [Chair]
20 minute papers from Rebecca Whiteley, Rosemary Betterton
10:50 Questions and discussion
11:15 20 minute papers from Anne Carruthers, Karen Harvey, Magdalena Ohaja,
12.15 Questions and discussion
12:40 Session 5: ARTIST RESPONSES workshop / collaborative conversation
10 mins/person: Lana Locke, Leah Lovett, Jessa Fairbrother
13:30 Lunch and further discussions on future collaborations
14:45 Regathering and closing remarks with artists and speakers. Possible futures.
Come and see our work in progress on the Conceiving Histories project, which looks at the history of un-pregnancy (trying to conceive, the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy and reproductive disappointment).
WEDNESDAY 17th MAY 2017, 6-7.30pm. Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square. FREE. ALL WELCOME. Book a place here.
We will be talking about pregnancy diagnosis today and in the past. How did people in the past imagine and anticipate the future of pregnancy diagnosis? For all our technological advancement, in what ways does our experience of trying to diagnose early pregnancy resemble that of people in the past?
Here is one assessment from Giralamo Mercurio in the fifteenth century, which didn’t quite predict the future:
As to the signs that some people think they see in the urine, this is such a false lie that it belongs more to charlatans than to physicians because the moon has more to do with shrimp than with urine in showing whether or not a woman is pregnant.
How reasonable he sounds but, it turns out, how wrong. Of course Mercurio was arguing against those who thought that urine was key to pregnancy diagnosis, who imagined the future that we now inhabit. Come and hear more about a curious history which is strangely more connected with our world today than is always thought.
We’ll be looking at some new art work from Anna Burel which focuses on the bizarre Xenopus frog pregnancy test, used in the twentieth century. Here is an example:
We’re pleased to announce that Conceiving Histories is part of the Being Human Festival programme in November 2016. The festival is a showcase of current humanities research and there is a great programme of events across the country. The theme this year is ‘Hope and Fear’, which speaks directly into the heart of what the Conceiving Histories project is all about.
FREE – book here. When: 23rd November 2016, 6pm-8pm (includes a wine reception).
Hope and fear are projections of the future. Whether hoping or fearing pregnancy, waiting to find out can be difficult. This project looks at what happens in that wait, in the fantasy space before diagnosis – of pregnancy or infertility. How does future projection affect our present? This interest in the present and the future is informed by a study of the past. History, it turns out, is a good way of reflecting on how things are for us and how they could be in the future, a reminder that we are not the first to struggle with uncertainty in our own bodies or in our lives.
Conceiving histories will be addressing the theme of Hope and Fear in the history of un-pregnancy through two curious case studies. One looks at an odd fashion from 1792-3 for the Pad, a false tummy which simulated pregnancy. Most of the evidence for it is from contemporary satire, like in this image here which laughs at the idea that, with a Pad, anyone – old or young – could be ‘pregnant’ with this new look. Even the little girl on the left is padded and so is her doll.
We look at the ludic celebration of this potentially absurd fashion but ask some serious questions about it. Today maternity fashions are very exclusive. The divide between maternity wear and other fashions is carefully observed. How does this contribute to the other social distinctions we make between women who can have children and those who can’t or haven’t yet? How does this exclusivity make us feel? Can we imagine fashions for today that enable a participation in pregnancy for all? When we look at the comedy in these depictions of this fashion can we reflect on the potential humiliation in not being, or not being able to be pregnant?
Our other case study is darker, responding more to the festival’s theme of fear. It explores an idea for a strange institution, the experimental conception hospital, described in a commentary on a peerage dispute from 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital presents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as our project does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.
Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will be discussing these case studies, considering them historically. However, they will also be presenting new artistic responses to them which are helping to shape the Conceiving Histories project. There will be time to ask questions or offer comments on the work presented and a wine reception for more informal conversation.
Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.
You may also be interested in another event, also at the Being Human Festival:
The Maternity Tales Listening Booth, an interactive installation exploring the spatial history of childbirth. Created by architectural historian, Dr Emma Cheatle, see and hear accounts of homes and midwives in the 18th century and lying-in hospitals in the 19th century. Fill in questionnaires or make recordings of your own experiences of maternity spaces.
Details: Day – 16th May 2016; Time – 6-7.30; Place – 43 Gordon Square. Sign up for a free place through Birkbeck Arts Week
Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will introduce their project, Conceiving Histories, and present a curious case study: an unusual and short-lived late eighteenth-century fashion for ‘The Pad’, which remodelled the female figure to simulate pregnancy.
We will be looking at some contemporary literary texts and satirical cartoons which celebrated or satirised this strange, prosthetic addition.
The fashion is satirised here in a cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank in which women choose their pad – to simulate different lengths of gestation or, in the case of the lady in the far right of the image, twins – from a boutique:
Come and find out about and even try on ‘The Pad’.
This is a free public event but space is limited, so do book a place.