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Our changing body image

Assembling Bodies: Art, Science and Imagination

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, UK Until November 2010

South African artist Nondumiso portrays her experience of living with HIV in Body-map (2003). Credit: MAA 2002.20, UNIV. CAMBRIDGE

A gleaming transparent head, studded with stainless-steel screws and embedded with microchips, sits immovable on its plinth. Unnervingly, its left eye looks real: lidless, it flickers in mute appeal as if someone were trapped inside. The Head of the Blue Chip II by Dianne Harris is one of several artworks commissioned by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, UK, to complement the historical — and indeed prehistoric — artefacts that make up its current exhibition, Assembling Bodies.

Harris's head speaks of a possible future in which the mind might become as readable as your computer's hard drive. Such a transformation would surely take place under academic scrutiny. But how can we know of the past changes in belief that have shaped our view of the human body, such as those that led our Bronze Age ancestors to cease burying dead bodies and instead cremate them?

Scholars in different disciplines from the universities of Cambridge and Leicester, UK, have been funded by the Leverhulme Trust to explore these and other questions; Assembling Bodies is the publicly visible outcome. Curators Anita Herle, Mark Elliott and Rebecca Empson have brought ancient and modern cultural and scientific artefacts together with contemporary artists' responses to perennial questions about our material being. Clustered around seven themes, the exhibits, many loaned by other institutions, range from classical sculptures to a model of DNA, and from anatomical drawings and scientific instruments to an installation of string bags from Papua New Guinea.

The exhibition's section on genealogies contains one of the 119 volumes of the printed 'library' of the human genome commissioned by the Wellcome Trust. We see that attempts to codify human kinship in written form are not new, with a display of John Speed's early seventeenth-century Bible open at the genealogy he drew to link Adam to the Virgin Mary.

Measurement and classification were the foundations of anthropology as a professional discipline, and the museum draws on its own collections to show how the drive to define racial and psychological types could be subverted by its own methods. Alfred Cort Haddon's 1898 expedition to the Torres Strait islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea reported that, similar to modern geneticists, they found larger variations in physical measurements within the community of islanders than between the islanders and the expedition members. The sculptor Marguerite Milward made a collection of portrait busts in the 1930s to illustrate different Indian races, castes or tribes. She seems complicit with both colonial and Indian elites in justifying social stratification; yet standing in front of the pallid plastercasts, their individuality is what sticks in the mind.

What can and cannot be done with bodies is constrained by changing laws and customs. An Act for Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder in Britain in 1751 used the threat of anatomical dissection as a deterrent to homicide. It hangs on the wall across the room from a projection of almost 2,000 digitized cryosections that make up part of the US National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project; they were taken from a Texan mechanic who received the death penalty for murder in 1993. The exhibition also includes a copy of the Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums 2005. Appropriately, a funeral effigy from Vanuatu in the South Pacific, known as a rambaramp, contains the skull of its subject but is displayed with the permission of the community from which it was collected.

The idea that we all have multiple bodies, each made visible by the technologies used to explore them, is expressed in five life-sized body maps created by the Bambanani Women's Group in South Africa to document their experience of living with HIV/AIDS and its treatment. Within an outline tracing of her own body, each woman has illustrated her feelings about what is going on inside it, mixing biomedical, social, religious and moral perspectives.

Hanging above the central atrium is Jim Bond's Anamorphic Man. The parts of the sculpture, constructed of steel wire at vastly differing scales, appear disjointed and meaningless until the viewer moves to the single viewpoint from which the assembly coheres as a human figure. Assembling Bodies achieves the same trick, offering visitors an opportunity to make sense of the human enterprise of exploring and representing their material selves.

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Ferry, G. Our changing body image. Nature 459, 1060–1061 (2009).

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