From the late eighteenth century to the present day, public exhibitions featuring displays of human anatomy have proven popular with a wide range of audiences, successfully marketed as educational facilities for medical professionals as well as improving entertainments for the general public. Partly a product of the public sanitation and health reform movements that began in the eighteenth century, partly a form of popular spectacle, early public anatomical exhibitions drew on two apparently distinct cultural developments: firstly, the professionalisation of medicine from the mid 1700s and the increasingly central role of practical anatomy within it; secondly, the rise of a culture of public spectacles such as world fairs, public museums, circuses and side shows, and the use of new visual technologies these spaces pioneered. Such spectacles often drew on medical discourses as a way of lending legitimacy to their displays of human bodies, while their popularity also helped make the then-contentious practice of anatomy publicly acceptable. This book examines the cultural work performed by such exhibitions and their role in (re)producing new ways of seeing and knowing the body over the modern era. While public anatomical exhibitions might seem to occupy a marginal position in the history of popular culture and that of medicine, their distinctive intermixing of the medical and the spectacular has made them an influential and intensely productive cultural space, an important site of emergence for new ideas about bodily health and care. This book traces the influential role of such exhibitions in popularising a distinctly modern idea of the body as something requiring constant work and careful self-cultivation—an idea which continues to play a central role in the contemporary fascination with practices and possibilities of self-improvement. Through a series of representative case studies—including eighteenth-century exhibitions of anatomical Venuses, nineteenth-century anatomical museums “for men only” that served as quack clinics for sexual disorders, traditional and contemporary freak shows, and the recent public display of real human remains in Body Worlds and other such exhibitions—Anatomy as Spectacle traces how these exhibitions taught their spectators to see their bodies as something requiring constant self-monitoring and management, constructing an embodied modern subject who is always responsible, productive, temperate, and focused on self-improvement.
A pleasure to read, this well-written book offers many thoughtful and provocative reflections on anatomy and exhibition and will appeal to a wide range of scholars concerned with disability, culture and medical history.
Scholars from diverse disciplines will be interested in the material that Elizabeth Stephens traverses: wax Venuses, popular and educative anatomy museums, sideshow exhibitions of freakish bodies. Stephens engages with the literature on “spectacular” anatomy from a cultural studies perspective and offers an excellent entry point to a large and burgeoning multidisciplinary literature on a subject that continues to intrigue both scholars and popular audiences.
American Historical Review
Anatomy as Spectacle makes an important contribution to the history of science by underscoring the crucial place of cultural history within the discipline. Stephens’s use of visual and material sources demonstrates the ways in which a close reading of these types of “texts” challenges received narratives about the professionalization of science.
ISIS Volume 103, number 2
Stephens’ Anatomy as Spectacle offers a fresh and engaging account of the budding, and indeed the wilting, of a historical nexus between exhibitory cultures and practices, medicine as a discipline that disciplines, and of course the maintenance, meaning and value of particular bodies in the everyday. It is well worth a read for scholars interested or doing research in fields such as disability studies, sensory studies, gender studies and indeed that spacious, noisy interval at which these are often drawn together: cultural studies.
Somatechnics, Volume 2, Issue 2