What does it mean that there are over 5,000 cosmetic surgeons in the United States when there are acute shortages of primary care physicians? What are the consequences when a part of our body is deemed a subject of "enhancement"--noses, breasts, chins, and more recently toes and vaginas? Does this shift our sense of what bodies should look like? Does it change the very meaning of what a body is?
Even technologies that might seem unquestionably useful raise questions: Cochlear implants to restore hearing have raised concerns that deaf culture is being assaulted; new transplantation techniques raise the specter of poor people being harvested for body parts; our ubiquitous 'smart' phones not only provide ways to locate one's car, lunch, or friends, but soon become addictive extensions of our hands, our eyes, and our brains. What would a world be like where you couldn't contact someone in an instant, 24/7? Can you even remember?
These questions are the focus of a new exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, a London-based museum devoted to the history of medicine. Timed to coincide with the Olympics, ‘Superhuman' displays body technologies that range from false teeth to smart phones. As a lesson in the history of prosthetics, it analyzes the superhuman stars of comic books as well as ethical debates about the future of human enhancement. The purpose, writes curator Emily Sargent in a press release is to show that “human enhancement...is not the exclusive preserve of the contemporary technologist. Our desire to enhance ourselves and our ingenuity to do so is in evidence throughout our history.”
Take a look through the slideshow below to see some of what is featured in the exhibition: from a (potentially NSFW) ivory dildo to the first documented prosthetic toe.