Foreign Bodies: New Exhibition at UCL

In 1942, G. O. Chambers (visiting surgeon to the English prison system) attempted to outline the “psychology of the intentional swallower”. Chambers was fascinated by the way in which foreign objects might end up in the alimentary tract, and what swallowing such items might say about a person: chiefly, he claimed, it indicated “an underlying psychological framework of egoism, vanity and self-attention”.1

Chambers’ understanding of intentional swallowing was framed through two (seemingly very different) categories of swallower: circus performers and incarcerated prisoners. Yet Chambers linked the two, despite their differences, by claiming that the latter exhibited an intensified version of the psychology of the former. Prisoners, he thought, were “stubborn, defiant and antisocial”, and their desire to gain attention and material gain mirrored the habits of circus performers.

While Chambers’ understanding of the intentional swallowing of non-food items seems simplistic and unduly pejorative, his interest in objects that had travelled through the human body was not unusual for this era. A few years earlier, Irish doctor Ian Fraser had declared that “a paper on foreign bodies is really a story of the human body.”2 Meanwhile, American surgeon Chevalier Jackson had amassed a collection of more than two thousand foreign bodies in the first few decades of the twentieth century.3

A new exhibition, which opened at UCL this week, takes the concept of the foreign body well beyond the medical realm. UCL Researchers in Museums (a group of PhD students in various disciplines) use foreign bodies as a starting point to look at the ways in which we define ourselves – biologically, psychologically socially and politically – through concepts of “otherness”. How and why do non-human items end up inside the human body? Where do we draw the line between human and animal, living being and inorganic “thing”, self and other? Through seven very different research projects, this exhibition addresses the idea of what is alien to us and how this concept has shifted across history, culture and even species.

The Foreign Bodies exhibition runs from 18 March to 14 July, in the North Cloisters (Wilkins Building), with a trail leading visitors to other foreign bodies in UCL Museums. Every Friday at 2pm (from April), there will be a curator-led tour taking visitors through some of the trail.

1 G. O. Chambers, “Foreign Bodies in the Alimentary Tract”, British Medical Journal, Sept 26 1942, 362-6

2 Ian Fraser, “Foreign Bodies”, British Medical Journal, 13 May 1939, p. 967. For more on this topic see Sarah Chaney, “Curious Appetites: Surgery and the Foreign Body”, The Lancet, Vol. 380 No. 9847, pp 1050-1051.

3 Mary Cappello, Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor who Extracted Them, New York, London: The New Press (2011).

Foreign Bodies exhibition poster

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