Inside the Collection

The Aesthetics of Prosthetics: a Brief History

The objects discussed in this post are currently on display in the exhibition Design for Life, 26 September 2020–31 January 2021.


Photograph of Prosthetic arm, 1920, MAAS collection
Prosthetic arm, 1920, MAAS collection, 2004/158/1-1

On Wednesday, 15 July 2015, museums around the world are sharing #DisabilityStories found in their collections. We’re joining the conversation with this post by MAAS Curator, Damian McDonald, who details the technologies used in prosthetics in our collection:

The use of prosthetics dates back to at least 300 BCE, the date of a Roman bronze leg that was excavated from a grave in Capua, Italy. A plaster copy is displayed at the Science Museum in London. Evidence has been found suggesting prosthetics may date back even further. In 2000, an Egyptian mummy was found with an artificial toe made of wood and leather.

Our collection features much more modern examples, reflecting the technology and materials available at the time of their manufacture. For example, a prosthetic arm used after World War I (picture at the top of this post) shows us that, due to the large number of men returning from war without limbs, sophisticated prosthetics were being developed. Designed not only to simply replace the lost arm with a similar shaped object, this prosthetic allowed movement, and the various attachments permitted the wearer some dexterity and the appearance of normalcy.

Appearance is an important aspect of social interaction. By the 1950s, materials were available which provided realistic looking attachments for prosthetics in an effort to lessen the stigma of the wearing of a prosthetic. Plastics enabled prosthetic artists to produce pieces which mimic natural contours and shades as demonstrated by a collection of 1950s polyvinyl chloride prostheses in our collection.

Polyvinyl prosthetic hand, prepared by Mr. Gordon Hunnings, Nottingham General Hospital, UK,1954
Polyvinyl prosthetic hand, prepared by Mr. Gordon Hunnings, Nottingham General Hospital, UK,1954, MAAS collection, H5319

The desire to make prosthetics appear like natural body parts has in many respects been left behind now. Social acceptance, pride in showing strength and recognition around the use of prosthetics, and the sexy technological aesthetics of prosthetics allows users to conspicuously show their limbs.

Prosthetic foot and ankle, 2014, MAAS collection
Prosthetic foot and ankle, made by Ossur, Iceland, 2014, MAAS collection, 2015/39/5

Prosthetics in athletics is one reason for wider social acceptance. The examples above from the Museum’s collection are at the high end of prosthetic materials technology. The ability to design and make prosthetics which allow almost unbridled freedom of mobility is enabled not only by the materials but also mechanical and microprocessor technology.

Prosthetic attachment, running blade, 2014, MAAS collection
Prosthetic attachment, running blade, made by Ossur, Iceland, 2014, MAAS collection, 2015/39/2

But this technology is not available to all. The majority of amputees are not athletes, but older people on limited incomes who have lost limbs due to illness. While some assistance may be available for the provision of prosthetics, these amazing technologies remain out of reach for many. I would like to see all amputees given access to the same levels freedom granted by the state-of-the-art technology found in our prosthetic collection.

Post by Damian McDonald

2 responses to “The Aesthetics of Prosthetics: a Brief History

  • Congratulations Damian on assembling this collection of historical prosthetics.
    I sincerely hope the exhibition is a success for the Powerhouse.

  • Fantastic project. We need to research and explore disability objects and cultures in more detail. Because of Covid and the Internet, disability communities are evolving, with crip activism and advocacy demanding equality in mainstream culture.

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