Nick Hopwood of the University of Cambridge just sent me a link to a wonderful new online exhibit about the history of visualizing the human embryo, produced by Tatjana Buklijas and himself with support from the Wellcome Trust. The web exhibition is both broad and specific in its approach. As the website explains:
Images of human embryos are everywhere. We see them in newspapers, clinics, classrooms, laboratories, family albums and on the internet. Debates about abortion, assisted conception, cloning and Darwinism have sometimes made these images hugely controversial, but they are also routine. We tend to take them for granted today. Yet 250 years ago human development was still nowhere to be seen.
Developing embryos were first drawn in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Modern medicine and biology exploited technical innovations as pictures and models communicated new attitudes to childbirth, evolution and reproduction. In the twentieth century they became the dominant representations of pregnancy and prominent symbols of hope and fear. Wherever we stand in today’s debates, it should enrich and may challenge our understandings to explore how these icons have been made.
The "Making Visible Embryos" web exhibit approaches a complex, wide-spanning subject engagingly and clearly without ever oversimplifying the subject matter. It is well-designed with heavily (and beautifully) illustrated pages (see above; visit the website to find out more about each image.)
The exhibit deftly explores the changes in metaphor, imagery, and understanding of the mysterious and centuries-hidden embryo, from speculative, religiously influenced illustrations of the 1300s to the modern day ultrasound. It also touches on popular debates about embryology, uses of the embryo in the fine arts, the history of (and uses of) illustration and modeling of the embryo, and contemporary controversies surrounding the embryo in the 21st century.
All in all, a fascinating treatment of a complex subject, beautifully designed, thought-provoking, and chock-full of resources and source information; this web exploration takes a subject we take for granted and examines the specific thinkers, physicians, artists, and medical and artistic advances that have quietly influenced our contemporary understanding and visualization. A real pleasure! I highly recommend you visit the website to see for yourself; you can do so by clicking here.