Skip to main content

The Politics and Ethics of Emerging Medical Collections from the Great War

Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square

No booking required

This paper explores the archival afterlives of photographs of the facially injured and disfigured ex-servicemen of the Great War, focusing on the prolific records of reconstructive surgery and aftercare in military hospitals. From the scientific quest to record and understand these wounds and their treatment, to soldiers’ post-war reintegration, the photographs have struggled to shed the conditions of their making as specimen and records of surgical technique. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, partly to safeguard them in the public’s interest, such collections were transferred from Army museums to better-resourced institutions. Their move away from closed holdings within a military-medical context, made them more widely accessible. This talk explores how these photographs have been repurposed in archival space, where they seldom serve as mere surgical documents. Over time, these remediated images have been reclaimed by descendants of patients into a kind of ‘redemptive power of domestic love’, in an effort to welcome loved ones back in a relationship with kin or friends and away from their dehumanised portrayal in clinical settings. Retooling surgical photographs of disfigured soldiers as ancestors, these remediations embrace an expanded range of collections whose family practices and archives will always confound the reduction of that person to only a medical subject, an institutional object.

Contact name: