(a note on content)
Some of the stories in the exhibition feature racist, ableist, and/or homophobic medical terms which are offensive. As curators and writers of this exhibition, we have done our best to use these terms responsibly, with a view to appropriately contextualising and exploring these ideas and their history, and encouraging continuing critical thought in the interests of positive social change in the future.
While trying to address these issues squarely, we are also aware that we may ourselves use racist and ableist language naively or in error. As such, we welcome corrections and suggestions for improving the language used here, and encourage you to get in touch with us to help us learn and improve the language of the exhibition if you feel we have done so. The exhibition also features images of pathology specimens which include human organs.
Ceramic figurine, “Grotesque figure of nude distorted dwarf”, Institute of Archaeology Collections, date of manufacture unknown, collected early 20th Century.
At first glance, the ceramic figurine originating from Egypt during the Hellenistic period seems to hold little relevance to the eugenicist movement of the 19th and 20th century (Hartford et al. 2018, p.14).
The original function of the item is contested, with scholars defining it as a possible religious or cultic figure, a souvenir or a "pathological grotesque" used for medical purposes (Hartford et al. 2018, p.4) However, of importance here is the motivation behind its collection in the early 20th century, which reveals the impact that UCL’s eugenicists had on wider collecting practices and discourse surrounding disability. The collector Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson gathered items that fit (or did not fit) his concepts of beauty, and in labelling the item as a “grotesque figure of nude distorted dwarf,” he subscribed to the idea of the normal body put forth by Galton and the eugenicists (Hartford et al. 2018, p.14).
Galton’s statistical work was critical in constructing the concept of the normal body, allowing him to order and categorise people. Using normal distribution, Galton plotted data gathered from his anthropometric laboratories such as height and weight forming bell curves, with most of the sample population falling in the middle – which was categorized as normal - whilst outliers were deemed either undesirable or superior traits (Davis, 2013, p.5). Karl Pearson (1912, p.23) wrote in Darwinism, Medical Progress and Eugenics that it was the prevalence of these negative hereditary traits such as dwarfism, insanity, and alcoholism which meant that “numberless members [were] failing to reach normality.” Thus, the disabled body was constructed as the antithesis to the ‘norm’ - as a deformity, and it is within this language of difference that the figurine is described as “grotesque” and “distorted” (Hartford et al. 2018, p.14).
Galton’s ideas of normalcy and superior traits were dangerous especially as they did not remain confined to academic circles but attracted international attention. For example, Eugen Sandow dubbed the “strongman of eugenics” captured public imagination by touring the world with his strength show (Daley, 2002, p.236), and was so popular that the British Museum took a cast of his body to represent the perfect body type (Davis, 2020). Whilst Sandow differed from Galton in arguing that exercise and nutrition could overcome genetics, Sandow represented those positive traits of height, strength, and whiteness that Galton deemed superior (Daley, 2002, p.236).
The able-bodied white male was held as the societal norm, which facilitated a process of othering as groups of people were measured against this standard. The “normal European” is cited as a reference point against which the “dwarfs” and “giant” are measured, as they are lined in ascending height order. Much like the photograph, the ceramic figurine offers a dehumanizing view of disability and a sense of spectacle, as the figurine was an example of “caricatured art” with its exaggerated facial features and twisted torso (Hartford et al. 2018, p.44). Gayer-Anderson’s interest in the piece in the early 20th century suggests the prevalence of, and his potential support of contemporary discourse in presenting disability as a deformity, and the eugenicist focus on categorizing and visualizing difference.
Eugenicists also virulently targeted individuals with cognitive disabilities, which physical disabilities were considered to be exterior markers of. For example, the American eugenicists Martin Barr and Earle Maloney (1920, p.3) stated in Types of Mental Defectives that “the idiot, commonly dwarfed and under-sized, exhibits those signs of physical weakness which at once betray mental degeneration.” Much like Galton, Barr and Maloney were eager to visualize difference, and created an extensive catalogue of photographs to help identify and categorize individuals deemed to be idiots, idio-imbeciles, and imbeciles through physical characteristics such as posture, vacant expression, and paralysis (Barr and Maloney, 1920, p.3).
Physical and cognitive disability were not understood in isolation but intersected with racism and classism, as “dark skin” was a "physical" marker used to determine cognitive disability (Barr and Maloney, 1920, p.19). The figurine represents this intersection of race and disability as it was collected during a mission to Africa and Gayer-Anderson actively participated in "race collecting" ascribing racial epithets to other figurines in his collection (Hartford et al. 2018, p.28). Social status also played a key role in the aesthetics of disability as Barr and Maloney photographed those deemed on the low end of the scale in plain clothing, whilst professional studio shots showed those on the higher end of the scale in nicer clothing and jewellery (Hans et al. 2017, p.413). This process of othering that stemmed from Galton’s presumption of what was normal manifested into very real discrimination that conflated notions of race, disability, and class. This was evident at Ellis Island, where immigration agents actively sought physical signs as evidence of cognitive disability, before marking the person with chalk and removing them, actively separating the ‘abnormal’ from the "normal" (Dolmage, 2018, p.19).
Eugenicists were eager to prove the hereditary nature of mental deficiency through pedigree charts The feeble-minded were such a group, associated with alcoholism, promiscuity, and criminality, it was argued that they were reproducing at a faster rate than “good stock,” passing on their negative traits, diluting the health of the population (Woodhouse, 1982, p.128). Eugenicists argued for segregation and sterilization to eradicate such negative traits, with Pearson (1912, p.27) stating that “the diseased and the deformed ... have no right to be the parents of the coming generation.” Whilst the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act confined disabled people to institutions, unlike America and other European countries, Britain did not enforce the compulsory sterilization of disabled individuals. However, this should not overshadow the fact that Galton and his peers advocated for and provided the supposed scientific and statistical evidence for governments internationally to justify discriminatory legislation (Mitchell & Synder, 2002, p.79).
It was within this context of discriminatory narratives that Gayer-Anderson collected. Whilst it is unclear whether he was a eugenicist, his fascination with beauty and his classification of the disabled body as “grotesque” suggest that he was influenced by the concept of "the normal body" that Galton and the eugenicists promoted and gave respectability to.
By India Patel
Barr, Martin W., and Maloney, Earle F. 1920. Types of Mental Defectives. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston’s Son & Co. Available at: Types of mental defectives : Barr, Martin W.,1860-1938 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
Daley, Caroline. 2002. The Strongman of Eugenics, Eugen Sandow. Australian Historical Studies (120): 233-248. DOI: 10.1080/10314610208596217
Davis, Lennard J. 2013. The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Davis, Josh. 2020. Eugen Sandow: a body worth immortalizing. Natural History Museum. Available at: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/eugen-sandow-a-body-worth-immortalising.html?gclid=Cj0KCQjwgtWDBhDZARIsADEKwgMDJZfWnl_lEaefrFEaZ_c_O6dtaq9 bwR23QTjLXQuqpuTIIIIslbYaAgF1EALw_wcB.
Dolmage, Jay T. 2018. Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.
Elks, Martin A. 2017. ‘Three illusions in clinical photographs of the feeble-minded during the eugenics era’ in Hanes, Roy., Brown, Ivan., and Hansen, Nancy E. (ed.) The Routledge History of Disability. London: Routledge. 394-420.
Hartford, Alexis., Phillips, Rhian M., Sharrard, Olivia., and Waterfield, Jodi. 2018. Ceramic Caricature Figurines. Internal UCL Report [Unpublished].
Marshall, David., and Snyder, Sharon. 2002. Out of the ashes of eugenics: diagnostic regimes in the united states and the making of a disability minority. Patterns of Prejudice 36(1): 79–103. DOI: 10.1080/003132202128811385
Pearson, Karl. 1912. Darwinism, Medical Progress, and Eugenics: The Cavendish Lecture, 1912: An Address to the Medical Profession. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/qvc7z5tp/items?canvas=5.
Woodhouse, Jayne. 1982. Eugenics and the Feeble-minded: The Parliamentary Debates of 1912-1914. History of Education 11 (2): 127-137. DOI: 10.1080/0046760820110205.
LDUSC-Noel-34ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Cast 34: Carl Gottlob Irmscher, UCL Science Collections (The Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks), 1840.
Francis Galton was far from the first to propose correlations between the psychology and physicality of a person....
LDUGC-378ACCESSION NUMBER: A unique identifier assigned to, and achieving initial control of, each acquisition. Assignment of accession numbers typically occurs at the point of accessioning or cataloging.
Composite portraits, UCL Science Collections (Galton Collection), 1876-1879.
The Victorian era, obsessed with moral restraint and sexual moderation, led to a fascination for the classification of all that was considered as alien to these strict moral codes....