The X chromosome

Chromosomes carry the genetic code that determines the characteristics of a living thing. They are fascinating due to the varied factors they determine, the sometimes negative effects they can have and their complexity. Equally interesting are the stories of their discoveries. This series will explore the history of specific chromosomes and their impact on science.

Humans typically have 23 pairs of chromosomes. One of these is comprised of our sex-determining chromosomes, X and Y. Taryn Cain starts this series off by looking at the X chromosome.

When cytologist Hermann Henking looked down his microscope in 1891, he was surprised to see that approximately half of his fire wasps had a spare chromosome floating around. Confused and intrigued, he named his lonely chromosome the “X element”.

By this point scientists already knew about cells; they knew that heritable material must come from these cells and they were aware that humans came from a sperm and an egg. What they didn’t know was how sex was determined while in the womb. Many theories have abounded throughout history.

Sperm of a mouse as seen under a microscope.

Sperm of a mouse as seen under a microscope.

Aristotle was sure that a hot and sweaty father during conception would bring forth a son. Galen believed a man’s right testicle would result in a son. Hippocrates thought it was the domination of a man’s semen over that of a woman’s that would bring him a son. In more modern times, Geddes and Thomson believed that good times would bring on a daughter whereas adversity would give you a son; a metabolic belief of sex determinism which persisted until the 1920s.

An unborn baby's genetic inheritance. (credit: Wellcome Library, London)

An unborn baby’s genetic inheritance. (credit: Wellcome Library, London)

After its discovery, the idea that the X chromosome was somehow responsible for sex determination grew quickly. However, it still took until the middle of the next century to be universally accepted. The X was briefly thought to be male determining until 1906 when this idea was put to rest by the same scientist who discovered the Y chromosome.

Part of the confusion came from the fact that the XX female and XY male combination aren’t standard amongst life on earth:

  • Henking’s fire wasps have XX females and XO males
  • Birds and butterflies have ZW females and ZZ males
  • A Platypus has 5X5X females and 5X5Y males
  • Roundworms have XX hermaphrodites and XO males

Of course, some species don’t rely on sex chromosomes for gender determination at all. Gender in humans isn’t purely determined by chromosomes alone either.

Illustration of a duck-billed platypus.

Illustration of a duck-billed platypus.

Over 200 million years ago the X and Y chromosomes were much like any other chromosome. As the first mammals were beginning to evolve, so were the X and Y chromosomes, drifting away from each other until they had little in common and barely spoke. The Y degenerated into the friendless chromosome we know today, being a third of the size of the X, whereas the X has remained relatively unchanged for the last 150 million years.

Human’s love to categorise things and we also like polarising opinions. This is why there are winners and losers, why you are a cat or a dog person and why your toilet roll must either face towards the back or the front. A similar thought process is at work with the X and Y chromosomes.

Ishihara charts for testing colour blindness.

Ishihara charts for testing colour blindness.

The X is often referred to as the ‘female’ chromosome; it is more accurately described as a ‘human’ chromosome. All of us, regardless of gender, have an active X chromosome in all of our cells. If you are female you were likely born with two Xs, so your cells will express one or the other. If you’re male, you likely only have one, so all your cells are the same.

This is the reason behind the higher incidence of autoimmune disease in women, the greater death rates of men and the male specific X chromosome disorders, such as colour blindness and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. That’s not to say that women are immune from these disorders. Usually when women are affected by them, it’s because they have inherited two mutant Xs, or one X chromosome has dominated the other during foetal development.

Meiosis. (credit: MRC NIMR, Wellcome Images)

Meiosis. (credit: MRC NIMR, Wellcome Images)

In 1992, the Human Genome Project (HGP) began sequencing each of our chromosomes. The X chromosome was sequenced by 250 scientists in 3 countries including the UK, with the nearly complete sequence being released in March 2005. The X was found to contain 155 million base pairs and 1100 genes, 50 of which are shared with the Y.

Along the way, some surprising things were discovered about the X. No one expected the X chromosome to contain genes for testis development, nor that the human X and dog X would be virtually identical. The HGP opened up a whole new door for exploring the path of human evolution.

The human genome library on display at Wellcome Collection.

The human genome library on display at Wellcome Collection.

In 2007, a complete printed library of the human genome, including the sex chromosomes, was given to Wellcome Collection, containing 118 books with over 3 billion characters. This genome library is still on display in our galleries today.

A look inside one of the books in the human genome library.

A look inside one of the books in the human genome library.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Unravelling our memories

We recently displayed the results of Unravelled in an installation at Wellcome Collection: a collaboration between art and psychology students from St Marylebone School. Fifteen Sixth Form students worked on the exciting project with artist Sarah Carne entitled ‘Archiving our Memories’. Birte Meyer tells us about the process and work involved.

Unravelled

In the first session in May we were introduced to the Wellcome Library’s fascinating archive and the role of an archivist. Alice Mountford introduced us to personal diaries from the archive that document experiences and the multiple ways in which people record these. After the talk and handling session the students shared something from their own memories and histories to consider how we archive our own lives. In order to understand how we use our brains as an archive, how we store our memories, and how we retrieve them, we had a talk by Dr Gursharan Virdee, a Clinical Psychologist.

Students looking through the archive.

Students looking through the archive.

Through workshops run by artist Sarah Carne we further investigated the idea of memory, with an emphasis on how and what we remember. Students brought objects that hold a memory to the first workshop, e.g. letters, photos, their own scrapbooks and other ephemera. We discussed how we remember, what do we choose to remember, which senses we use in the process and which materials the students thought appropriate to work with to convey the memories related to their brought object.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.

In the second workshop we explored and experimented with tools and processes to record memories. We sculpted with plasticine to examine how we can create sculptures that take the memory object as a starting point and find a visual language that conveys the memory that the object holds.

Then we started to experiment with copper wire inspired by the work of Alice Anderson. We wanted to include writing in the collaborative process and suggested that monoprinting and the use of tracing paper would be an appropriate tool for referencing memories.

Experiments with monoprinting on sugar paper.

Experiments with monoprinting on sugar paper.

In the next session we discussed the process of monoprinting and how it can be used to trace and visualise memories. We decided to print on sugar paper referencing the students’ memories of scrapbooks from nursery and primary school. Each student wrote a sentence evoked by the objects they brought in. We decided that these sentences should be incorporated into the final sculptures.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.

In the final session we refined the copper wire sculptures and drawings, came up with the title “Unravelled” and discussed how our collaborative art installation should be displayed at Wellcome Collection. Everyone involved realised that we could have done with more sessions and that we found it quite challenging to work to such tight deadlines.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.

This programme provides our students with invaluable experience outside of curriculum time and has given them an insight into what it takes to create a commissioned collaborative art piece and exhibit an artwork in a professional exhibition context. In addition, all students gained an understanding of some of the work of the Wellcome Trust.

Birte Meyer is the A-Level art teacher at St Marylebone School, whose students took part in the project.

Some of the work produced by the students.

Some of the work produced by the students.

 

A to Z of the Human Condition: Y is for Yawning

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. In this final post of the series, Richard Firth-Godbehere explores how we use expressions to speak with our faces, illustrated by your photos.

Untitled-12

One area where we historians find ourselves struggling is in the realm of ‘extra-linguistic communication’. Most of what we do involves reading texts with words in them and trying to first piece together what was meant by those words before translating that to modern language. History, in essence, is an act of translation; just translating from old words to new ones is far from easy. This is why going beyond words is even harder, especially when it comes to emotions.

One particularly interesting area of extra-linguistic communication is the face. Facial expressions are connected quite strongly to the emotions. Yawning, like in Wellcome Collection’s A to Z exhibition, can express boredom or tiredness. More bizarre is that it appears to be contagious, with one person’s yawn spreading through a group whether its members are tired or not. The variety of facial expressions and the way they communicate are rich pickings for those studying emotions.

Until fairly recently, psychologists believed that all humans have a set of six basic emotions expressed through the face. This idea was the result of research by psychologist Paul Ekman who asked people in various parts of the world to pick faces (from a range of photographs) they would expect to see when presented with a given scenario. A version of the photos of the six emotions he believed common to all cultures can be seen below, wonderfully posed by @LizTunbridge, one of the contributors to “Y is for Yawning”.

Paul Ekman wasn’t the first to try to use faces to understand emotions. Charles Le Brun, a man declared by the French King Louis XIV as ‘the greatest French artist of all time’, attempted to put together a catalogue of the passions expressed through people’s faces in classic art. This work, Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions, wasn’t published until 1698, eight years after Le Brun died. Many of the faces are recognisable today. Here are two faces provided by amykatherinejensen that look suspiciously like Le Brun’s Horror and Fright.

The face of a man expressing horror, Charles Le Brun.

The face of a man expressing horror, Charles Le Brun.

The face of a man experiencing fear, Charles de Brun.

The face of a man experiencing fear, Charles de Brun.

Another man who tried to find emotions in faces was Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne, also known as Duchenne de Bologne. Duchenne, a brilliant physician, believed that human faces could produce sixty discrete emotions. In the days before ethical codes, he decided he would demonstrate this using electrical stimulation of the face muscles. He published his images in Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine in 1862. His work was influential, particularly on Charles Darwin, who reproduced many of Duchenne’s images in his 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

A man having his face stimulated by electricity in an experiment on the electro-physiological expression of passions.

A man having his face stimulated by electricity in an experiment on the electro-physiological expression of passions.

Darwin’s descriptions and Duchenne’s photographs contained many similarities and differences to Ekman’s set of basic emotions, and to Le Brun, but all three retained the conviction that the face is the primary part of the body that communicates emotions. It is also worth noticing that all three sets contain some facial expressions that are certainly similar in what emotion they were supposed to be communicating, if not identical.

However, Ekman’s emotions might not be so universal after all. More recent experiments, giving people from various cultures a much greater say in which emotion faces they were allowed to choose, has suggested that Ekman is probably wrong. That doesn’t mean that faces don’t help us communicate our emotions, just that this type of language, like any other, may be taught to us as children. A great deal of our emotive communication comes from the face and it seems odd to think that members of one culture may not be able to read the anger, fear, of frustration of another. Nevertheless, this is increasingly appearing to be the case.

Now the world is getting smaller and this particular type of non-linguistic expression has started to become the basis of a world-language: the emoji or emoticon. In the entire internet-connected world, people are expressing their emotions not through words, but through cleverly formed characters that mimic the face.

To some degree, the use and prevalence of emojis can tell us something about Ekman’s idea of basic universal emotions, shared by all. We might expect that the most common emojis were anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise, but this isn’t the case. While there are emoji for anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise (try to pick them out above), these aren’t necessarily the most common. Nevertheless, images of faces are being used to convey extra-linguistic information about how people feel.

By representing the face, people are finding ways of expressing what was once all but impossible to express in text and beginning to provide a fascinating insight into the emotional lives of people all around the world. At the same time, as certain emojis and emoticons become increasingly common, it seems that a universal set of emotions is beginning to take shape. For me, and I suspect for Ekman and the ghosts of Le Brun, Duchenne and Darwin, this is far from something to yawn about.

Richard is a Wellcome Trust supported Doctoral Candidate in the Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London. Find out more on his blog.

See all the #HumanExpression photographs submitted by the public.

A to Z of the Human Condition: S is for Skin Art

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Nicola Cook looks at one of the ways we adorn our bodies as she explores how we illustrate human skin, illustrated by your photos.

Your #HumanSkin photographs in our current exhibition.

Your #HumanSkin photographs in our current exhibition.

It’s in our very nature to change our bodies. Some say the choice to alter and adorn ourselves, the active desire to show the rest of the world exactly who we are through our appearance, is one of the things that makes us human. From facial hair to hair dye and lipstick to lip piercings, the ways we can express ourselves are endless and range from fleeting aspirations to near-irreversible transformations.

One of the oldest forms of more permanent body modification is now arguably one of the most popular. Bodies decorated with traditional bold, blue-black lines and solid block colours; intricate stippled, hand-poked patterns; or grey-washed realism are on high-fashion billboards, poking out from under shirt-sleeves or emblazoned across knuckles and chests.

They’re both traditional and progressive, described as “modern primitivism” and as literal “marks of civilisation”. Engrained in cultural history and associated with deviance and mutilation as much as reclaiming the body and subverting beauty paradigms, tattoos are a highly-exposed “art form” that are so thwarted by a conflicting narrative, Western society still doesn’t know whether to accept or resist it.

Though striving to be a unique embodiment of self-expression, it ultimately unifies people with a common interest, creating a (sub)culture that is open to judgement and stereotyped misconceptions. One I hadn’t really thought of before writing this post is of the tattoo artists themselves.

Tattooist Erik Rubright sums this up perfectly on his blog: “…sometimes it’s difficult to separate the stereotypes about people with tattoos from people who do tattoos. Although… the later mostly includes the former since most people who do tattoos have tattoos. Mostly.” I doubt I’m the first person to assume that, as part and parcel of the job and the industry, tattooists are likely to have heavy coverage or lots of visible tattoos. Having blank bodily canvasses of their own seems a bit like a doctor who faints at the sight of blood.

But tattooing is fast becoming increasingly recognised as an art form as techniques and styles progress. The artists are often just that: artists, either self-taught or formally educated. The industry is diversifying and the negative stereotypes are being challenged and refuted.

On the other side of the world, in Australia, two tattoo artists are doing just that. Originally from the UK, Nicola Garner (who although isn’t tattooing at the moment) got into it some years ago as a means to make money as a professional artist. She worked in a high end custom studio, which enabled her to exercise her creativity. Nicola was surprised, however, at the amount of resistance she was up against from both her peers and clients because she didn’t have any tattoos herself.

It was a time when tattoo shops were predominantly run by bikers, so the older, more traditional tattooists thought it was disrespectful to the industry. I was intrigued as to how she trained and learnt the skill as most apprentices use their own skin to practice on in the early stages. Nicky explained that this was the only time she ever felt out of the loop in the studio, but this just encouraged her to learn in different ways, mainly from observing, listening to other’s experiences and learning through doing. Regardless of the peer pressure, she wasn’t swayed and remains tattoo-less to this day.

As new generations come through I think we will see more and more un-tattooed artists – after all, it’s the work you produce, not what you wear, that counts. And just because you don’t have any doesn’t mean you’re not aware of or respectful of the history and traditions that are so deeply ingrained in tattoo culture.”

- Nicola Garner

Unconventional in many ways, Jin O (who now works at Kaleidoscope Tattoo Studio in Bondi) began her career in Korea where tattooing is illegal. It is considered to be a medical procedure as it deals with the skin, meaning only a licensed doctor is legally permitted to do it. If a tattoo artist is discovered to be tattooing, they will be fined $800 – $20,000 at first but the penalties increase. Just this year, the Ink Bomb tattoo convention was shut down as a ban was enforced by the government.

A somewhat underground industry, Jin originally only designed tattoos. As she became more interested in the process of transforming a drawing into a work of art for the body, she later relocated to the UK to gain experience.

Much like Nicola, being a tattoo-less tattooist offered its fair share of struggles and negative criticism: one studio had offered her a job, but once the owner found out she didn’t have a tattoo herself he was quick to withdraw it. Interestingly, she found that less-tattooed clients were more inclined to be judgemental and doubt her ability rather than those with more coverage.

Jin has tattooed herself a few times without ink to have some idea of how it must feel. She explained, “It’s not unlike a doctor who is treating a patient but has never had the illness or disease, yet they have some understanding of how their patient must feel. I learned by experience, seeing how my clients would react; that tattoos on certain parts of the body are more painful.”

Even though she has sometimes received adverse reactions Jin didn’t want to get a tattoo just because her peers or clients were pressuring her into it. She said that she “wasn’t actually interested in getting a tattoo for a long time. I was more interested in tattooing other people” until I contacted her a couple of weeks ago. Jin told me that she’d just got her first and that “the choice to get a tattoo was mine. It might have taken me a long time but I got a tattoo because I wanted it for myself.”

I love the idea that our lived experience is written on our skin. While tattoos mean different things to different people, they’re quite often regarded as a literal extension of this; visually representing meaningful moments in time, memories of loved ones, or personal style, preferences and passions. Whether unintentional, deliberate or inevitable, our skin is constantly evolving: it wrinkles and creases; it gets damaged and scars; it reacts, protects and resists. We may choose to let our skin transform naturally over time but, as Vale and Juno say, “a tattoo is grounded on living skin, so its essence emotes a poignancy unique to the mortal human condition.”

Nicola Cook is the Features Editor of Things&Ink magazine.

See all the #HumanSkin photographs submitted by the public.

Object of the month: Brass Corset

There are a number of objects behind the glass cases of An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition that look hostile to the human form: a pair of nail-studded fakir’s sandals; tiny slippers for bound feet; unfriendly-seeming sex toys. The metal corset, however, draws more comments than almost anything: “What a hideous thing!”; “Did someone really wear that?”. Sarah Bentley tells us a bit more about it as our Object of the Month.

The tight-laced corset is most commonly seen as a symbol of oppression, whereby women subjected their bodies to discomfort or deformity in order to maintain an implausible shape. There is, however, an opposing opinion that suggests we’ve inherited the view of 19th century, mostly male, campaigners against the corset.

The brass corset currently on display at Wellcome Collection.

The brass corset currently on display at Wellcome Collection.

One such campaigner was the anatomist William Henry Flower, whose household happily continued to wear their corsets despite him. This view also holds that, in reality, few women practised extreme tight-lacing: fashion historian, Doris Langley Moore, when measuring the waistbands of her extensive collection of 19th century dresses, found that “the smallest waist…is not less than twenty-one. And these are far below the average, which for young women’s clothing was twenty-four.” (The Woman in Fashion, 1949).

What is remarkable about the corset controversy is that the oft one-sided criticism of corsets became a debate with women making their voices heard, both for and against stays, in journals and the press of the time.

Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset.

Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset.

We don’t have much information about our corset. It has been dated to 1800-1880, is brass and probably English. We can’t be sure whether it was worn as a fashion item or to correct a bad back. We can’t even be sure if it was worn by a woman.

In the 18th and 19th centuries men regularly wore corsets. It is clear that many enjoyed the experience too: “the sensation of being tightly laced in an elegant, well made, tightly-fitting pair of corsets is superb” (letter from “Walter’ to The Englishwoman’s Magazine,  Nov 1867).

In the cartoon below by George Cruikshank, Monstrosities of 1818, the men in the picture are wearing hourglass corsets; the shape so associated with the distortion of the female form. But this tight-waisted shape for women was on its way, with new technology enabling tight-lacing across the classes – not just for those with servants.

Monstrosities of 1818.

Monstrosities of 1818.

Restricting the torso serves different purposes at different times. The painting of Elizabeth I shows the bodice as a tight inverted cone emphasising the Queen’s luxurious skirt: a statement of wealth and status.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I.

It is really only at the end of the 18th century, around the time of the French Revolution, that we see a big change in women’s shape (below) with a short-lived emphasis on ‘natural’ form. The corset no longer needs to restrict the waistline which has relocated to – unnaturally! – immediately below the breasts.

A woman in evening dress standing in front of a mirror.

A woman in evening dress standing in front of a mirror.

Helen Gilbert Ecob, a prominent member of the late 19th century dress reform movement, underlines the absurdity of certain arguments in support of the corset: “Those who uphold the corset argue its morality because ‘the only period in which its general use appears to have been discontinued are the few years which immediately followed the French Revolution, when the general licentiousness of manners and morals was accompanied by a corresponding indecency in dress.”

Today we tend to see the tight-laced shape as ‘knowing’, erotic; poised between restraint and abandonment. We may even see those who wore it as rebels but in the 18th and 19th centuries, the wearing of corsets was mostly seen as an upright, disciplined, respectable habit. The heroine of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, finding herself in a brothel, is particularly shocked to discover that the prostitutes are not wearing stays.

Our corset is a clunky bit of technology in more ways than one, however. Outwardly, it forms a carapace of the ideal form of the day, without the capacity to mould the body to it: an unlikely fashion item. However, there is a history of metal corsetry in orthopaedics.

Orthopaedic corset.

Orthopaedic corset.

Ambroise Paré, the 16th century surgeon and innovator, describes metal corsets, depicted in engravings of the time as criss-crossing bands covering the torso, as being used to correct “crookednesse of the Bodie’. Could our corset be a later version?

The Victorian age is one where back problems became something of an epidemic, engendered by repetitive industrial tasks. At the start of the century, back problems were still being attributed to a build up of cold, damp ‘phlegm’ in the body; heat treatments such as ‘blistering’ might be applied as an attempt to treat this cold/damp humour with its ‘opposite’. Later in the century, the internal causes of back problems began to be investigated, albeit sometimes reaching strange conclusions: the diagnosis of ‘Railway Spine’, for example, was not the result of labouring on the emerging rail network but was thought to be the result of travelling at excessive speeds by train!

Corset advert from 1886.

Corset advert from 1886.

It is possible our corset was used both to support a back problem and to maintain the fashionable shape of the day. We don’t know for sure.

If the corset wasn’t, except in extreme cases, quite as damaging as was thought at the time, there are plenty of fashion and beauty practices that are dangerous. The corset controversies are interesting in that they show the impact culture and society have on our habits, the way risky practices are perpetuated and how easily opinion is polarised.

Sarah is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Individuality

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Alli Burness takes a look at our collective reflection as she explores the (in)famous selfie, illustrated by your photos.

Selfies receive a lot of bad press. For some, they’re the manifestation of a self-obsessed, narcissistic society. We’re impelled to step back from significant or sombre moments in our lives to share selfies online. These images taken in front of the Mona Lisa, at funerals or even at Auschwitz visualise uncaring, thoughtless moments. But I think there is more to selfies than meets the eye.

Today, the sharing of lived experience is part of our daily lives and, within that process, we have the ability to present ourselves and see our bodies as never before. Selfies are a contemporary tool for managing our sense of self, a highly personal process which requires viewers to remain aware of context and directorial control as important to their meaning.

There are generally two schools of thought about the nature of human identity and you can recognise one or the other as being at the root of many statements about the selfie (try to identify them in the video at the end of this post).

One school of thought holds to the concept of an authentic, essential sense of self that sits within us, like a traditional notion of a soul. This frequently manifests in a fraught relationship with social media. The presentation of self in the online world is posited as a negative influence in our lives, as artificial posturing with vain tendencies, empty and without substance. Taking selfies, in this light, disrupts ‘real’ moments in our lives by encouraging us to capture and share ourselves self-consciously to online audiences.

The second understands identity as something we construct and constantly recreate in an ongoing process throughout our lives, a fluid performance from one moment to the next. In this way, the online self is a continuation of behaviours we already conduct in meat-space, from presenting ourselves on a resume, to choosing the clothes we wear and the mannerisms used in face-to-face interactions. The online space amplifies the self-conscious nature of these day-to-day methods of navigating our world. The ‘performance of self in everyday life’ (a 1959 theory authored by Erving Goffman) is now explicit and communally acknowledged with the use of tools such as selfies.

So what is a selfie? Is it an expression of our authentic inner self or a tool we use in an ongoing, evolving performance of ourselves? What is the effect of social media as a lens through which our selfies are refracted to the world?

Our body is our blind spot and yet it is critical to our sense of identity. Or, as Nick Crossley puts it, “the ‘I’ does not see itself any more than the eye sees itself and we are therefore reliant upon others to reflect back information about ourselves.”1 Photography allows us to see ourselves by standing outside of and objectifying our bodies. It has profoundly shaped not only the human sense of self but our awareness of how others perceive us, thereby impacting how we behave. Amplifying the reflective role of photography, selfies inserted into social networks are tools which allow us to direct how images of our bodies are presented to others while also highlighting the information reflected back in the form of likes or comments.

“Photography has been the most widespread means of visual communication of the past century and a half, and has done more than any other medium to shape our notions of the body in modern times.”

John Pultz2

When we take a selfie, we often play to the moment. We act “a little bit larger than life, to spotlight the meanings that are hard to see in the flow of routine life. They feature the same kind of intensification that museums convey upon objects.”3 Within the spotlight of the selfie, the roles of photographer, subject and viewer are conflated. The photographer-subject enacts directorial control over not only the photo-taking process but also how the selfie is inserted into social media spaces. This act implicitly grants permission for us to look at their selfie. These images shared in online spaces create a consensual awareness of us all communally looking at each other, causing the ‘self’ in selfie to become a collective ‘we.’4

Whether we like them or not, the selfie has changed the way we do identity work and created a new way to look at ourselves and others. They are now an everyday tool of self-expression, no matter if we see that as expressing an essential inner character or as an ever-changing, on-going performance of identity. Which do you see them as?

Alli Burness is a museum writer working on digital engagement at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. She is the author of the museum blog Museum in a Bottle.

See all the #HumanReflection photographs submitted by the public.


Further Reading

1 Nick Crossley, ‘The Networked Body and the Question of Reflexivity’, in Waskul, Dennis and Phillip Vannini (ed.s), Body/embodiment: symbolic interaction and the sociology of the body, England: Ashgate, 2006, 27.

2 John Pultz, The Body and the Lens: Photography 1839 to the Present, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995, 7.

3 Jay Rounds, ‘Doing Identity Work in Museums’, Curator, Volume 49, Issue 2, April 2006, 133 – 150.

4 Sarah Hromack, ‘The Museum Selfie’, Whitney Museum: Shared Spaces Symposium, online video, viewed May 2014.

A to Z of the Human Condition: U is for Urban Living

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Andrew Matheson looks at how more and more people live in an urban environment, illustrated by your photos.

For the first time in human history more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. Between 2000 and 2050 developing countries could add 3.2 billion new urban residents: larger than the global population in 1950 (Thinking Spatially, RTPI 2014). Yet planning as a recognised profession– the attempt to manage this rapid and accelerating urbanisation – has just celebrated its centenary. The story of the last century can be seen through a kaleidoscope of efforts to manage a massive move to urban living against a background of powerful social, economic and environmental factors.

For many, New York City is the epitome of urban living. Its seemingly perpetual reach-for-the-skies is based upon order brought about by one of the most regular street-pattern grids of any big city. But whilst New York appears to crave density, this comes at a heavy price: it is not placed in the top 20 cities of the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s (EIU) “Liveability Ranking”.

Yet there seems no single blueprint for loveable, liveable places. Cities that consistently rank highly on liveability rankings – such as Copenhagen, Melbourne and Vienna – are very different. Copenhagen has virtually all residents living within 350 metres of public transport and it also has ambitions to have 50% of commuting residents use a bicycle by 2015. In contrast, Melbourne sprawls but it makes the most of its ability to intersperse high and low densities. Vienna it seems has managed successfully to meld old & new. Each city has challenged the potential for dislocation from growth and change in its own way.

Jane Jacobs in her hugely influential book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ (1961) criticised the notion that you can bring control and order to cities; she noted the contrast with what they are in reality, complex organic systems. It is that complexity that is both the benefit and challenge of living in cities. Opportunities abound but every dislocation has a myriad of consequences, many difficult to foresee with any clarity, and so we build knowledge from past experience.

Perhaps urban living is an attractive proposition precisely because of the range of experiences they can encompass.  Ebenezer Howard who published ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ in 1896 knew this and his vision was of places free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both town (such as opportunity, amusement and high wages) and country (such as beauty, fresh air and low rents). Howard’s vision still inspires today with The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014 building on this legacy by seeking viable ideas for 21st Century Garden Cities; proposals here have suggested up to 40 new ‘cities’ with populations ranging from 25,000 to 400,000 ‘city’ populations.

On the world scale we clearly have very modest ambitions. The new Prime Minister of India has said his country will create 100 new cities, “equipped with world class amenities”. This commitment is said to have taken a lead from China where a whole array of planned eco-cities are being created (Guardian 14.04.14). Like Howard’s theory, the Chinese have the goal of building exemplar cities from the ground up rather than letting them develop organically. But as the commentator notes: “You can want to design your urban landscape, but in reality, on a fundamental level, that’s impossible. We have to acknowledge that it’s extremely hard to build a regular city from scratch.”

Some will see planners as the dead hand of bureaucracy stifling ambition and ordering the energetic chaos that brings excitement to cities. Others will see planners as the ushers of unwanted and dislocating change that has too little respect for tradition. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. After the next 100years we will certainly know better!

Andrew Matheson is a Chartered Town Planner for the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), as a Policy & Networks Manager.

See all the #HumanSardines photographs submitted by the public.