Themes

The Art Hx “themes” are the big picture concepts derived from, and used to deepen our study of, the images we have found. Written by Art Hx team members, the 35 themes listed below are inspired by subject headings and controlled vocabularies used by the National Library of Medicine (MeSH, or the Medical Subject Headings), Library of Congress (LCSH, or Library of Congress Subject Headings), and Getty Research Institute (Getty Vocabularies). These themes form the foundation of the project, illustrating the topics that motivate us, and their descriptions clarify our questions, research interests, and terminology. Themes provide a more specific lens through which our three core frameworks can be explored.

Acknowledgements: These themes and descriptions were authored in Fall 2021 by Luke Naessens and Jessica Womack. We are grateful to Caterina Agostini, Jennifer Baxmeyer, Matthew Chandler, Minnie Chen, Sierra Eckert, Natalia Ermolaev, Julia Gearhart, Kate Lynch, Michelle Millar Fisher, Phoebe Nobles, Emma Sarconi, Anu Vedantham, and Amber Winick for their invaluable input and expertise as we about learned subject headings and controlled vocabularies and developed the below for the project.

 

List of Themes

Anatomy
Architecture and Design
Bodily Aesthetics
Cartography and Mapping
Community Health
Contemporary Art
Criminalization and Punishment
Dentistry
Diet and Nutrition
Disability
Endocrinology
Enslaved Medicine and Healers
Environment
Eugenics
Experimentation
Gender
Gynecology and Obstetrics
Herbal Medicine and Bioprospecting
Hospital Care
Indigenous Medicine and Healers
Labor
Medical Education and Professionalization
Mental Health and Illness
Pediatrics and Childcare
Pharmaceuticals
Policy and Politics
Public Health
Quarantine and Contagion
Rural Medicine
Scientific Racism
Sexual Health
Skin and Skin Disease
Spirituality and Religion
Tropical Medicine
War and Military

Anatomy
These objects relate to the study and visualization of human anatomical structures including organisms, cells, and tissues. In particular, this theme addresses how historical anatomical representations of the human body produced ideas of  biological differences or sameness and the social and political consequences of these images and their interpretations.

Architecture and Design
How does the design of spaces and implements shape our knowledge and experiences of health? Works in Architecture and Design explore the production and organization of medical spaces, implements, and devices and how they inform practices of care.

Bodily Aesthetics
Colonial projects have produced racialized conceptions of a “normative body,” pathologizing differences in phenotype. This theme examines how images and objects trace the historical construction, visualization, and stigmatization of bodily differences, such as size, skin color, and other external characteristics.

Cartography and Mapping
Processes of creating visual representations of the earth and specific regions have been central to the colonial enterprise. Cartographers produced maps as tools that both facilitated exploration and travel while ordering space by framing portions of the world as spatially, racially, religiously, and climatically distinct. This section probes how maps and mapping were technologies of empire, legitimizing and depicting the reach, impact, and colonial vision of the British.

Community Health
Processes of creating visual representations of the earth and specific regions have been central to the colonial enterprise, as cartographers produced maps that were not only tools that allowed for exploration and travel but also framed portions of the world as spatially, racially, religiously, and climatically distinct. This section probes how maps and mapping were technologies of empire, legitimizing and depicting the reach, impact, and colonial vision of the British.

Contemporary Art
Works produced by contemporary artists illuminate how the interconnections of race, art, colonialism, and medicine have shaped our world and continue to affect our ways of seeing. Works of art produced by living artists underscore how art and artmaking help us imagine alternate futures and can educate us about these enmeshed histories.

Criminalization and Punishment
How have criminalization and punishment had an impact on the health and wellness of individuals and societies? This theme probes how processes of criminalization and punishment affect physical and mental health and how these processes were racialized through colonialism and enslavement. It also examines how ideas about who is deemed criminal or deserving of punishment have informed medicine and medical studies, who has access to healthcare, and the quality of care they receive.

Dentistry
This theme explores objects related to teeth, the mouth, oral hygiene, and related diseases and care.

Diet and Nutrition
Objects in this theme visualize how colonialism, slavery, and conceptions of race have had an impact on communities’ access to food, nutrition, and their influence on health. It also probes how particular diets have been pathologized and how eating and nutritional practices are tools of resistance.

Disability
Ideas of “normative” and “nonnormative” bodies were foundational to the colonial project, and these concepts still shape our world today. This theme probes the ways colonialism and slavery created and relied upon conceptions of physical and mental ability and disability and how an individual’s worth—during enslavement, for example, often the literal financial value ascribed to them—was tied to their ability to produce for the benefit of global capitalism.

Endocrinology
This theme relates to the study of the endocrine system and its related processes—like hormone regulation, stress, and inflammation—and disorders, such as diabetes. How have colonialism and enslavement shaped the body’s automatic feedback systems, and how have artists visualized these effects?

Enslaved Medicine and Healers
Medicine was a key site of struggle for enslaved communities as enslavers tried to regulate their daily lives; while colonizers employed academy-trained medical professionals to control bondspeople’s health and reproduction, these communities also resisted by using their own healing practices. Objects in Enslaved Medicine and Healers illuminate these contestations, to present and honor the medical and healing practices and knowledge of people who were enslaved.

Environment
How has the natural environment shaped experiences and conceptions of health? This theme probes the impact of the natural world on the health of those in a particular region, and it also examines how notions of climatic difference—for example, a locale being labeled as more tropical or temperate—facilitated ideas about racial superiority and were used to validate colonial incursions.

Eugenics
Founded in the late 19th century and inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the modern eugenics movement was based on the idea that certain genetic characteristics were superior. The ideology was employed as rationale to justify the genocide of people and populations deemed undesirable (such as people of color, queer people, Jewish people, and individuals with mental or physical disabilities) using various methods such as selective reproduction, forced sterilization, and murder. This theme examines the tools and techniques of eugenics and how it was legitimated and enacted through the use of visual and material objects.

Experimentation
Objects in Experimentation examine how the bodies of those seen as other due to their race, gender sexuality, disability, or place of origin have been used in medical and scientific experiments. It calls attention to how much of modern medical knowledge has been founded on the exploitation and inhumane mistreatment of marginalized people and how these individuals, and the experiences they  endured, have been erased from the history of medicine.

Gender
This theme examines how medical care is a site through which gender is socially constructed, and traces how women, nonbinary people, and trans people have historically experienced vastly different forms and quality of care. Additionally, this section visualizes how colonial medicine regulated gender, sex, and related health practices.

Gynecology and Obstetrics
Objects in Gynecology and Obstetrics relate to the study of the female genital tract, and the speciality of caring for people who are currently pregnant, delivering, and postpartum. This theme takes as its inspiration the fact that the modern history of gynecological and obstetric medicine was founded upon the exploitation of enslaved Black women by white medical doctors, and it investigates the ongoing fraught history of these specializations.

Herbal Medicine and Bioprospecting
The substances we take to relieve or cure ailments often rely on ingredients taken from nature. This theme presents the historical and contemporary uses of herbal treatments and natural remedies by individuals and societies. It also highlights the colonialist and capitalist exploitation that has transformed these therapeutic uses of nature into extractive industries through bioprospecting, the systematic search for commercial potential in the natural world that utilizes plant, animal, and fungal life in the development of medical commodities.

Hospital Care
This theme presents works that explore the care individuals receive at a hospital or other healthcare facilities. It also examines the historical development of the hospital as a medical institution—especially through the establishment of colonial hospitals staffed by imperial officers and physicians.

Indigenous Medicine and Healers
This theme acknowledges the ongoing usage of Indigenous practices of healing and care, even under conditions of appropriation and suppression. Colonial medical science was informed by Indigenous healers and their knowledge of local environments, diseases, and plants, but its authority has depended on concealing this debt and criminalizing Indigenous medicines.

Labor
Objects explored in Labor examine the ways colonialism and slavery shaped mandates for the labor of enslaved and other subjugated peoples and how these expectations for and experiences of work—often coerced and/or underpaid— have an impact on physical and mental health as well as healthcare. Labor highlights how the body becomes a site of medical study due to the demands of productivity. Objects in this theme also examine different types of labor (like reproductive labor), how work is seen, how it is tied to conceptions of race, gender, and class, and whose work is valued or not.

Medical Education and Professionalization
What counts as “medicine”? What kinds of healing and care are discounted in that judgment? These objects trace the institutional training of nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals and examine how these institutions and individuals determine medical authority.

Mental Health and Illness
These objects examine how the mind has been constructed as an object of medical knowledge and social control. The history of mental health been shaped by attempts to discipline cognitive and behavioral difference, from the imprisonment of individuals judged as insane to the pathologizing of queer sexualities as mental disorders. This theme also explores ways of caring for the mind without relying on racialized, gendered, and classed standards of mental normativity.

Pediatrics and Childcare
Pediatrics is the branch of medicine concerned with the health of children, encompassing nutrition, hygiene, and disease prevention as well as treatment. It was developed as a response to the poverty rife in industrializing 19th century European and US cities, where children’s hospitals were established to care for poor and abandoned children. This theme acknowledges both the successes of pediatric medicine and its historical complicity with colonialist and paternalistic attempts to discipline the family lives of marginalized people.

Pharmaceuticals
British colonial endeavors in the 19th century were driven by aspirations to access substances like quinine and opium. This theme traces the colonial histories of the pharmaceutical industry and the drug trade. It examines how Europe and the US have increasingly monopolized the production and distribution of pharmaceuticals, restricting access to treatments and ensnaring the global South in structures of dependency. It also traces the shifting moral and legal frameworks that have stigmatized certain types of substance use as drug abuse. The afterlife of these histories determines some of today’s most urgent problems, from Covid-19 vaccine apartheid to the United States’ opioid overdose epidemic.

Policy and Politics
The works in this section examine how health and medicine are politicized. From vaccines to diet to reproductive rights, medical practices can become intensely debated political questions. These debates in turn shape the decisions of policymakers at all levels of government.

Public Health
Public health is the management of health at the macro level of populations, in order to prevent disease, reduce mortality, promote healthy lifestyles, and increase longevity. Through policy, infrastructure, and education, it is the domain of local, national, and international governing entities rather than individual physicians and healers.

Indigenous Medicine and Healers
This theme acknowledges the ongoing usage of Indigenous practices of healing and care, even under conditions of appropriation and suppression. Colonial medical science was informed by Indigenous healers and their knowledge of local environments, diseases, and plants, but its authority has depended on concealing this debt and criminalizing Indigenous medicines.

Quarantine and Contagion
The fear of contagion from infectious diseases like plague, smallpox, cholera, and HIV/AIDS has influenced how we live, work, and travel. These objects reveal how attempts to contain, prevent, and cure infectious diseases have shaped aspects of our modern world, including international borders, urban planning, and interpersonal relationships.

Rural Medicine
People living in rural or remote areas face health-related challenges resulting from hazardous physical occupations, older populations, and insufficient medical infrastructure which, in the worst cases, produce deserts where healthcare services are totally inaccessible. These objects explore how people in rural regions experience medical inequities, and they reveal the responses that members of rural communities and others have developed to overcome the uneven distribution of care.

Scientific Racism
A powerful, violent instrument of colonial projects, scientific racism appropriates the authority of science to explain and justify racial hierarchies and oppression. Race is a social phenomenon, but over the previous centuries scientists, doctors, politicians, and others have deployed pseudo-scientific research to make it appear as a biological fact. This theme examines the construction, dissemination, and naturalization of race.

Sexual Health
The fear of sexually transmitted infections like syphilis has long been used to pathologize sexual acts, and reinforce ideas about the healthy body and heteronormative family. Marginalized groups such as sex workers, queer and trans people, women, and people of color have been disproportionately affected by these stigmas and targeted by related policies. These objects reveal how medical constructions of sexual health have informed and supported hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and race.

Skin and Skin Disease
This section examines medicine that focuses on the body’s surface and reveals how scientific and artistic representations have generated ideas about race, health, and beauty from differences in the appearance of skin, especially its pigmentation.

Spirituality and Religion
This theme makes visible the intersections of medicine, spirituality, and organized religion. In many cultural contexts, practices of curing and care are intimately associated with spirituality and ritual. Physicians and researchers have tried to purge modern medical science of these associations in its pursuit of authoritative objectivity, even as missionaries have been one of the most effective conduits for the dissemination of colonial medicine and religion.

Tropical Medicine
The branch of medicine that focuses on diseases endemic to tropical and subtropical regions is intertwined with histories of empire. As European states sought to establish control over colonial spaces in the 19th century, physicians supported colonial projects by seeking to manage the challenges posed by tropical climates and wildlife to colonizers’ bodies. These objects reveal how the tropics and the peoples who live in them were pathologized as objects of medical knowledge.

War and Military
Many techniques and technologies for surgery, triage, and emergency medicine were developed on the battlefield, but these innovations are not equally distributed for all victims of conflict. This theme explores the wartime role of doctors, nurses, and caregivers; the visible and invisible effects of violent conflict on health; and the intimate relationship between war, injury, and medicine.

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