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Missed us at Fertility Fest?

If you missed us at Fertility Fest, you can now catch up at The Fertility Podcast.

The figure of the child turning itself to the birth 2016, 21 x 29.7cm, photography

Our session featured Isabel talking about Mary Tudor and her two false pregnancies, and Anna introducing people to her work on Mary’s story. Anna also had some of these pieces in the Fertility Fest exhibition, one of which you can see here.

We were followed by the amazing Emma Cunniffe, who was talking about her experience of playing the role of Queen Anne, in a play of that name by playwright Helen Edmundson. She read from the play, talking particularly about the question of grief and how it affects the different characters very differently.

We were joined in discussion, after our presentations by Julia Bueno and Tracey Loughran. Julia is an experienced psychotherapist, who specializes in fertility issues. She is currently writing a much-needed book on miscarriage, using her experience of helping her clients in the aftermath. Tracey is an academic historian at the University of Essex. She has published a crucial collection of essays on the history of infertility and leads a Wellcome Trust funded project on women’s health in the twentieth century.

The audience was great, asking us really hard and interesting questions. Someone asked about what sort of oral histories were being collected now by historians. One person commented on how quickly women’s horizons of expectation in relation to family had changed between recent generations. Another noted how different ideas about infertility were in other cultures (her example was Spain as compared to the UK). One person asked about how far we could think about much older historical cultures as ‘closer to nature’. These have left me with much food for thought about how to move forward in our future research into un-pregnancy.

The Fertility Podcast also podcast other events and sessions at Fertility Fest, so you can catch up on lots of what went on at the festival, there.

Read more about the Fertility Fest exhibition in this article by Moya Crockett at the Stylist Magazine. Anna’s work was amongst the work of other artists, who are thinking through reproductive technology, and the experiences of infertility and miscarriage.

The Experimental Conception Hospital

Imagine a dark Gothic building, with walls a hundred foot high. Inside are one hundred female experimental test subjects, ranging in age from fourteen to forty five. The staff over-seeing this curious institution are recruited from monasteries and relied on to keep accurate scientific data. No men are allowed into this hospital, part from male midwives of scrupulous integrity. Their visits are part of  a clinical research trial, to discover the exact length of human gestation, and from when and what to date pregnancy.

This is the bizarre science-fictional building imagined by Robert Lyall, who was a nineteenth-century physician, botanist and traveller, in response to the confusing medical evidence presented in the Gardner peerage dispute heard in the House of Lords 1825-6.

This story testifies to how difficult it sometimes was for historical physicians, let alone lay people, to diagnose pregnancy reliably and early. The medical evidence gives us all sorts of information about how pregnancy was dated at the beginning of the nineteenth century, showing that there was little agreement between practitioners about the best way to do it. Just like today, people in the early nineteenth century understood themselves to be living through a hypermodern age, when all sorts of strides were being made in technology and science: for example, in steam power, electricity, and air flight. And yet, for all this progress, it still wasn’t possible to get a fix on the reproductive body, which was so familiar and close to hand. It felt anachronistic, Robert Lyall tells us in his eccentric commentary on the Gardner case.

We might reflect on a similar feeling of anachronism that people, and particularly women today encounter in the two week wait, in the time after embryo transfer or ovulation and before a pregnancy test is reliable. Just as women search their bodies for pregnancy signs and symptoms, Robert Lyall speculates on whether conception would feel like ‘the sting of a wasp, or like the bite of some other insects’. But, in the time before it’s possible to test, women today are in the same position as those in the past who didn’t have the test at all.

Read more about the Experimental Conception Hospital in a free open access article at The Social History of Medicine here.

Watch a short video made by Anna Burel, which sets Robert Lyall’s words to images, and evokes the hospital’s inmates.

Featured image:

Anna Burel, 99, 76, 12, 93, 7, 22/100 (2016).

Bearing Different Risks – exhibition

i have been really pleased to take part in the AHRC-funded network, Risks in Childbirth in Historical perspective, which is led by Adrian Wilson and Tania McIntosh. This is a collaboration between historians and midwives.  This has fostered some cross-disciplinary conversations and really asked: what can history do today? How can it change and influence current debates.

I have enjoyed finding out more from this network about historical midwifery,  childbirth and pregnancy. My part has to be interject the thought about the risks of not giving birth, which are often not the focus of historical inquiry. Listening to others in this group considering the historical management of birth risk, has forced me to reflect on the more often psychological, social and perhaps insidious risks posed by un-pregnancy.

That project is now hosting a new exhibition which opens at the Thackray Museum, in Leeds on 15th June, and will eventually tour to London and Brighton. It’s great to see this on-going conversation coming to fruition.

Featured image: Eucharius Rösslin, De partu hominis, et quae circa ipsum accidunt (1532).

Making Modern Families

A couple of weeks ago, Conceiving Histories took part in a ground breaking fertility education pilot, Making Modern Families, led by Fertility Fest and incorporating expertise from fertility scientists, arts-education professionals, artists, theatre practitioners, and young people. Fertility Fest is headed up by two visionary women at Fertility Fest, Jessica Hepburn and Gabby Vauntier-Farr, and their education initiative is funded by the Arts Council of England and the Wellcome Trust.

It was a huge privilege to be part of this extraordinary interdisciplinary group rethinking fertility education for today. We learned a huge amount during an energising week of discussion.

We met every day for a week at the National Theatre Studios in London, working together to make arts-led workshops which would foreground and confront questions around fertility, addressing perceived insufficiencies in sex education. Sex education currently is primarily focused on helping people to avoid both unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infection. These, of course, are crucial aims and there is no desire to see those health message diluted. However, at the same time, it is important that people have a better sense of what fertility is and how they can protect and preserve it. Letting people know, before it becomes an issue for them, that conceiving isn’t always quick or easy is also an important message so that, when it does become an issue for them, they don’t feel alone or unusual, and they know how to help themselves and/or where to seek help from others. Furthermore, the project sets out to tackle misconceptions about how medical science might be able to help. The media is keen to report on scientific breakthroughs in relation to reproductive science and, of course, science can do wonderful things. However, there is a lot that is still unknown and lots that it cannot do to help people to become parents.

Press for Making Modern Families:

The Times. 

The Independent.

The Guardian. 

How can Conceiving Histories help with these very contemporary fertility questions?

We think that having a historical perspective on this issue can do a number of things:

* History can help us today to find a vocabulary for delay, disappointment and the unknown, a lost vocabulary. We often think that we are very different from people in the past, who had less knowledge and fewer technological solutions. Sometimes we can forget that experiences like loss and waiting are still with us; they are modern experiences. If we don’t acknowledge that they are, people can feel left behind or at odds with modernity. People in the past thought a lot about the unknowability and frustrations of the reproductive body. We can learn a lot from them.

* History can help us find a space beyond the self to reflect on our own desires and experience. The world is full of the stories of contemporary people and their struggles. These stories are important and useful to help us understand our selves. History, however, offers a separate and novel reflective space. In that space we can mobilise our intellectual curiosity, as well as our feelings about the human reproductive body, its place in culture, and in relation to our sense of self.

*History can help us reflect on science and medicine. What is it? What do we hope it can do for us? Does it want the same things for us as we want for ourselves? How did particular scientific emphases, understandings or technologies come into being? Can we get an objective or scientific fix on our reproductive bodies?

We used our workshop to explore the strange case of Mary Tudor, who was Queen of England from 1553 until 1558, and her two false pregnancies. We asked participants to think about Mary’s fantasies of pregnancy and how those fantasies were collective, driven as much by the people around her as by Mary’s own desire to be a mother and to secure her political lineage. Students spent their workshop time making images of Mary to reflect on the pressures on women to become mothers. Some students drew connections with modern monarchy and the emphasis on pregnancy in the coverage of royal marriages; others wanted to think about the messages that ordinary women today are given about becoming mothers, and perhaps particularly when they should become mothers. Mary’s story is extraordinary because it highlights the very powerful connection between the mind and body. Although our routine use of diagnostic technologies in the West has meant that cases like Mary’s are less common than they were, the close link between mind and body still exists, and looking after ourselves depends on our appreciation of that connectivity.

We are looking forward to seeing how this project develops and to participate in any way we can. We will continue to think about how the past can inform our reproductive present and futures. We are hugely grateful to have encountered the wonderful expertise (in science, theatre, arts, in education, and in making things happen) of all the other contributors in this important and valuable initiative.


Fertility Fest 2018

We are really excited to be taking part in Fertility Fest later this year at the Bush Theatre, in London. Fertility Fest is an innovative arts festival, facing the difficult topics of fertility and infertility. There are 150 artists and fertility experts taking part, with a whole range of different events across six days in May (8th-13th).

The festival aims to:

  • Improve the understanding of the emotional journey of people who struggle to conceive
  • Improve the level of public discourse about reproductive science
  • Improve fertility education

Conceiving Histories is about understanding how history can contribute to contemporary fertility health. Modern technologies can, of course, help people to become parents; science can do amazing things. There are many things, however, with which it cannot help. In particular it cannot help us to wait, or to cope with disappointment. History and art, disciplines brought together in the Conceiving Histories project, offer an interesting space, beyond the self, from which to think about – and perhaps even to learn to tolerate – reproductive delay, disappointment and uncertainty.

Some of Anna Burel’s Conceiving Histories work will be featured in the fertility fest exhibition, which is on display across the festival’s six days. The work we’ve chosen to show explores a strange idea from the early nineteenth century for an ‘Experimental Conception Hospital’, an institution in which women would be experimented on in order to understand some of the mysteries of conception.

We are also excited to be taking part in a special discussion session on ‘Unpregnancy: Infertility before IVF’ with writer, psychotherapist and expert on pregnancy loss, Julia Bueno; actor Emma Cuniffe, who played Queen Anne in the acclaimed RSC production of the same name; and historian Tracey Loughran, who has co-edited a path-breaking book on the history of infertility, at Sunday 13th May, 11.45. We are interested to get their takes on history and how it can be used to think about contemporary fertility.

We will be talking about the work we have on display in the exhibition, and a bit more about the Experimental Conception Hospital story. We will be particularly focussing on how this odd institution might give us ways to think about the two week wait and the difficulties of diagnosing early pregnancy, and about science and the desire to get an objective fix on the body.

Anna and I went along to the Fertility Fest launch last Tuesday and there was a palpable buzz in the room. People are clearly as excited as we are to be joining the show. We were given a sneak preview of Camilla Whitehill’s inclusive and charming short play Aloe Aloe, directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson and performed by twelve actors, exploring modern families and the multitudinous ways they are made today. Then Jessica Hepburn and Gabby Vautier gave us their vision of the festival. They hope to change the world, they said; it was a moving call to arms.

Fertility Fest is about getting fertility and infertility talked about more, and talked about better. That’s got to be a good thing. I’m sure there will be sadness as well as positivity at the festival. Our own contribution will, I hope, entertain, but it is also dark and curious, disturbing, confronting the difficulties of the unknown and fantasies of science. Yet the launch was quite definitely an upbeat event. The room was filled with pastel balloons; we each held one as we had our photos taken, like party guests. Coincidentally, Anna and I have thought a lot about the shape of the balloon and its similarity to the uterus (perhaps we’ll tell you about that at the festival). We couldn’t help but see the balloons as so many coloured floating uteri, cheerfully bobbing up to the ceiling.

Find out more about Fertility Fest and book your ticket
Follow the festival on twitter: @FertilityFest

So long and thanks for all the tweets!

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.

Cover image of catalogue

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 (i.davis@bbk.ac.uk) 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:

A review by Kerry McMahon, a member of More to Life (an organisation for the involuntarily childless) for Fertility Network UK

Review by Professor Diane Watt, University of Surrey

Review by Pauline Suwanban for Birkbeck’s Institute for Social Research Blog

Review by Leonie Shanks for the MaMSIE Blog.

We also received a great write up by journalist Matthew Reisz in the Times Higher Education Supplement

Although our exhibition has closed, this isn’t the end of the project. Watch this space and follow us on Twitter to keep up with the project.

With special thanks to our funders: the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities and those philanthropic individuals who donated through our Kickstarter campaign.

With thanks to the Wellcome Trust and Birkbeck College who funded the research behind this exhibition.

With thanks too to all those who came, blogged, tweeted, gave us their feedback, told their friends and generally and in every way supported us.

Photographs © Dominic Mifsud 2016.

The Pregnant Archive Symposium

A free event but space is limited. You must have a booked place to attend.

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.


11:00 Coffee
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

13:15 Lunch
14:15 Session 2: ARTIST RESPONSES workshop / collaborative conversation
10 mins/person: Helen Sargeant, Ruchika Wason Singh, Nikki Davidson-Bowman, Sreyashi Tinni

15:15 Tea
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


10:00 Coffee
10:15 Session 4: MATERIALS OF PREGNANCY [Chair] 20 minute papers from Rebecca Whiteley, Rosemary Betterton
10:50 Questions and discussion
[short break] 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.
15:00 End


The Fertility Podcast

Recently I spoke to Natalie Silverman for The Fertility Podcast. Natalie has built up a great library of podcasts from all sorts of different contributors talking about fertility and infertility, from clinical practitioners to people with their own personal fertility stories. She is always looking for people to talk to. So, if you have a story to tell, perhaps you should get in touch with her. Why not follow the Fertility Podcast on twitter: @fertilitypoddy to get alerts?

Listen to the dicussion I had with Natalie here:

EP 101: Conceiving Histories



Catch us at Being Human 2017

The Conceiving Histories project opens its doors to Being Human Festival goers. Our exhibition [8th November-13th December] will be on throughout the week of the festival and we are also hosting a ‘Behind the Exhibition’ talk at which you can hear about some curious cases of un-pregnancy from the past.

22nd November 6-8pm. Keynes Library. 43 Gordon Square, London. WC1H 0PD. See on a map.

Free. Booking required.


Peltz Gallery. Birkbeck School of Arts. 8th November – 13th December 2017.

Gallery opening times: Monday-Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed on Sundays. Free entry. See gallery location on a map.

How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of un-pregnancy in the archive? This exhibition explores this paradox, finding and reimagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, biomedical technology has no jurisdiction over the experiences of waiting, unknowing and disappointment.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary historian, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel, producing creative and fictional reworkings of the archival materials of un-pregnancy. This exhibition re-materialises the past, giving structure and shape to things that have been left to us in text. The artworks explore the search for knowledge about a reproductive body which is as opaque as history: resistant, mediated and contested. They reflect on the signs of pregnancy in, from and on the body, and on messages and messengers, divine or earthly. Empty uterine spaces are imagined here displaced from the corporeal frame, labelled and dated, filled with strange visions. Swollen and flat structures, pads and envelopes, hollow and filled, contrast the fantasies of or desire for pregnancy with the reality of the un-pregnant body.

Behind the Exhibition

Come and hear about the making of the work and some of the research behind it. This event will be exploring the curious material history of un-pregnancy, that is of pregnancies feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose, and how this history can be re-imagined and materialised to think about conception and fertility today.

In particular, we will be further exploring the case of Mary Tudor and her two false pregnancies and twentieth-century frog pregnancy testing.

There will be a wine reception and a chance to visit the exhibition.


Yerma: a review

Last year Anna and I queued along The Cut at the Young Vic Theatre for returns to see Yerma, an adaptation of the Federico García Lorca play by Simon Stone. There weren’t any. But this week I had the chance to see it at a nearly empty cinema in a soulless shopping centre off the M25 as part of the National Theatre Live programme. Weird, not quite the same, but we take what we can get sometimes.

The play, people may know, tells the story of an unnamed woman (played by Billie Piper) unable to have a child with her husband John (Brendan Cowell). The action takes place in a glass box which mostly represents the couple’s new and big empty house, although also sometimes other places. Watching the action as if in an aquarium, the audience comes to represent the social expectation that couples become parents and the pitying social response when they don’t. The central character writes a blog about her ‘journey’ full of confessional information: about her resentment for her pregnant sister, for example, and her partner’s lack of co-operation with ‘baby-making’. Similarly, in the play’s action, then, the world looks in through see-through walls.

One wordless scene is played out to soaring baroque music – Pergolesi perhaps. The box is suddenly furnished with sofa, a kitchen island, a child’s cup on the floor. John and his partner are bouncing a baby boy in a sleep suit. Later, it turns out, the child is not theirs. When they return him to his mother the box is empty once again. I was as drawn to this play as others have been. The energy and commitment in the performances moved me, of course.

I wanted to see Yerma because the Conceiving Histories project is so embroiled with the questions it raises: about waiting and disappointment, about not being pregnant and not having a child. As I look through different historical literature for accounts of these experiences I am continually struck by the same story of the mad woman, made mad by her childlessness. This woman stands in the centre of our understandings of childlessness.  Similar characters, albeit a great deal less convincing, turned up in the recent series of Top of the Lake, for example. Here, women who are unable to have children resort to exploitative surrogacy arrangements using immigrant sex workers. One particular woman is driven mad enough to dance in and out of the traffic wearing her nightgown. She’s the Gothic version, embroiled in the dark secrets in which Gothic fiction revels. Yerma, in contrast, is more statuesque and, because the whole play is given over to this figure, more like a Greek tragedy. In whichever version, this woman steps out from the past to confront our own modernity; Yerma’s heroine has twelve unsuccessful rounds of IVF.

Part of the need for this mad woman is to do with how stories work. The narrative about wanting to have children either finishes with the person having a child or it doesn’t. But how can the latter story really work dramatically? If they don’t have a child then something else has to happen: so, they go mad. Can’t we think up some other endings, I wonder as I leave the cinema. When I voice this to my partner who watched Yerma with me, he replies: ‘Well, what do you want?  A play where at the end the main character says, “I am a bit disappointed, but I’m soldiering on”?’.

I’m working on the answer to that question and it involves thinking about this mad, childless female figure and our cultural investment in her, but it also involves finding out other endings for this story by looking at documents from the archives, imagining the powerful, dramatic ways in which we might tell the potentially boring story about ‘soldiering on’, of nothing happening, of stories that don’t end happily or don’t end at all.