Category Archives: Art

Making Modern Families

A couple of weeks ago, Conceiving Histories took part in a ground breaking fertility education pilot, Making Modern Families, led by Fertility Fest and incorporating expertise from fertility scientists, arts-education professionals, artists, theatre practitioners, and young people. Fertility Fest is headed up by two visionary women at Fertility Fest, Jessica Hepburn and Gabby Vauntier-Farr, and their education initiative is funded by the Arts Council of England and the Wellcome Trust.

It was a huge privilege to be part of this extraordinary interdisciplinary group rethinking fertility education for today. We learned a huge amount during an energising week of discussion.

We met every day for a week at the National Theatre Studios in London, working together to make arts-led workshops which would foreground and confront questions around fertility, addressing perceived insufficiencies in sex education. Sex education currently is primarily focused on helping people to avoid both unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infection. These, of course, are crucial aims and there is no desire to see those health message diluted. However, at the same time, it is important that people have a better sense of what fertility is and how they can protect and preserve it. Letting people know, before it becomes an issue for them, that conceiving isn’t always quick or easy is also an important message so that, when it does become an issue for them, they don’t feel alone or unusual, and they know how to help themselves and/or where to seek help from others. Furthermore, the project sets out to tackle misconceptions about how medical science might be able to help. The media is keen to report on scientific breakthroughs in relation to reproductive science and, of course, science can do wonderful things. However, there is a lot that is still unknown and lots that it cannot do to help people to become parents.

Press for Making Modern Families:

The Times. 

The Independent.

The Guardian. 

How can Conceiving Histories help with these very contemporary fertility questions?

We think that having a historical perspective on this issue can do a number of things:

* History can help us today to find a vocabulary for delay, disappointment and the unknown, a lost vocabulary. We often think that we are very different from people in the past, who had less knowledge and fewer technological solutions. Sometimes we can forget that experiences like loss and waiting are still with us; they are modern experiences. If we don’t acknowledge that they are, people can feel left behind or at odds with modernity. People in the past thought a lot about the unknowability and frustrations of the reproductive body. We can learn a lot from them.

* History can help us find a space beyond the self to reflect on our own desires and experience. The world is full of the stories of contemporary people and their struggles. These stories are important and useful to help us understand our selves. History, however, offers a separate and novel reflective space. In that space we can mobilise our intellectual curiosity, as well as our feelings about the human reproductive body, its place in culture, and in relation to our sense of self.

*History can help us reflect on science and medicine. What is it? What do we hope it can do for us? Does it want the same things for us as we want for ourselves? How did particular scientific emphases, understandings or technologies come into being? Can we get an objective or scientific fix on our reproductive bodies?

We used our workshop to explore the strange case of Mary Tudor, who was Queen of England from 1553 until 1558, and her two false pregnancies. We asked participants to think about Mary’s fantasies of pregnancy and how those fantasies were collective, driven as much by the people around her as by Mary’s own desire to be a mother and to secure her political lineage. Students spent their workshop time making images of Mary to reflect on the pressures on women to become mothers. Some students drew connections with modern monarchy and the emphasis on pregnancy in the coverage of royal marriages; others wanted to think about the messages that ordinary women today are given about becoming mothers, and perhaps particularly when they should become mothers. Mary’s story is extraordinary because it highlights the very powerful connection between the mind and body. Although our routine use of diagnostic technologies in the West has meant that cases like Mary’s are less common than they were, the close link between mind and body still exists, and looking after ourselves depends on our appreciation of that connectivity.

We are looking forward to seeing how this project develops and to participate in any way we can. We will continue to think about how the past can inform our reproductive present and futures. We are hugely grateful to have encountered the wonderful expertise (in science, theatre, arts, in education, and in making things happen) of all the other contributors in this important and valuable initiative.


Virtual Exhibition

We welcomed 1372 visitors through the doors of the Conceiving Histories exhibition in November and December 2017. Amongst the many generous comments in the Peltz Gallery visitors’ book, people described the exhibition as: ‘compassionate’, ‘moving’, incredible’, ‘fascinating’, ‘evocative’, ‘heart-breaking’, ‘haunting’ and ‘emotional’.


Anna and Isabel took around six tour groups, hosted a gallery launch and an academic/artist symposium, The Pregnant Archive, with Dr Emma Cheatle of Newcastle. We took part in the Being Human Festival, the UKs first national festival for humanities research.

Cover image of catalogue

We are sending out copies of our exhibition catalogue to those who couldn’t make it but would have liked to. If you would like a free copy contact Isabel ( with your name and address and she’ll send one to you.

Isabel spoke to the amazing Natalie Silverman at the Fertility Podcast about the project in the lead up to our exhibition.


Four visitors were inspired to write blog posts about the exhibition:

A review by Kerry McMahon, a member of More to Life (an organisation for the involuntarily childless) for Fertility Network UK

Review by Professor Diane Watt, University of Surrey

Review by Pauline Suwanban for Birkbeck’s Institute for Social Research Blog

Review by Leonie Shanks for the MaMSIE Blog.

We also received a great write up by journalist Matthew Reisz in the Times Higher Education Supplement

Although our exhibition has closed, this isn’t the end of the project. Watch this space and follow us on Twitter to keep up with the project.

With special thanks to our funders: the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities and those philanthropic individuals who donated through our Kickstarter campaign.

With thanks to the Wellcome Trust and Birkbeck College who funded the research behind this exhibition.

With thanks too to all those who came, blogged, tweeted, gave us their feedback, told their friends and generally and in every way supported us.

Photographs © Dominic Mifsud 2016.

Conceiving Histories Exhibition

Peltz Gallery. Birkbeck School of Arts. 8th November – 13th December 2017.

Gallery opening times: Monday-Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed on Sundays. Free entry. See gallery location on a map.

How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of un-pregnancy in the archive? This exhibition explores this paradox, finding and reimagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, biomedical technology has no jurisdiction over the experiences of waiting, unknowing and disappointment.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary historian, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel, producing creative and fictional reworkings of the archival materials of un-pregnancy. This exhibition re-materialises the past, giving structure and shape to things that have been left to us in text. The artworks explore the search for knowledge about a reproductive body which is as opaque as history: resistant, mediated and contested. They reflect on the signs of pregnancy in, from and on the body, and on messages and messengers, divine or earthly. Empty uterine spaces are imagined here displaced from the corporeal frame, labelled and dated, filled with strange visions. Swollen and flat structures, pads and envelopes, hollow and filled, contrast the fantasies of or desire for pregnancy with the reality of the un-pregnant body.

15th November 2017- Private viewing and reception 6-8:30pm. Reserve your free place. All Welcome!

Free event: Behind the Exhibition public talk. 22nd November 2017. 6-8pm. Part of the Being Human Festival Programme. Book your free place here.

Academic and Artist symposium. 30th November-1st December 2017. Book a place here.

This exhibition has been generously supported by the Peltz Gallery, the Centre for Medical Humanities at Birkbeck and, through a kickstarter campaign, the following generous individual donors: Neelesh Prabhu; Matthias Schiller; Henry Singer; Jutta Rolf; Familie Rolf; Rémy Burel; Isolde Hahn-Pfaff; David Burel.

The research behind the exhibition was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Birkbeck, University of London.


Calling all artists!

Call for artists

How do we materialise the history of a subject which leaves few material traces? In the past, conception, pregnancy and birth were largely private experiences, perhaps further obscured by their ephemerality, as well as the secrecy and partial medical knowledge surrounding them. Recovering their histories means considering their material traces, no matter how absent.

We invite artists to join and collaborate with a network of academics from history, architecture, literature, art and art history, to examine and elaborate the meaning of the objects, spaces, descriptions and other archival materials left behind by maternity. The academic contributors have suggested a range of objects that they would like to share – from eighteenth-century letters, to a caul, to uterine membranes, to an original pregnancy testing kit – and we are hoping you would like to respond with discussions and new artworks. The aim would be to contribute ‘work in progress’ and processes of thinking at a two-day symposium/workshop. The selected artists will be asked to participate in the 2-day event by presenting early research/work they have produced as a result of their engagement with one or more of the proposed objects. Completed artworks will be displayed alongside the historical objects and materials to which they respond in a later event, in June 2018.

Unfortunately we cannot pay fees and expenses at this stage, but may be able to pay artists’ expenses for the 2nd event in 2018. There will be no fees charged of collaborating artists.

For full information about this call for collaboration and how to apply please email Dr Isabel Davis (

Deadline: 8th September 2017.

Featured image: A Cesarean patient prior to dressing the wound. From Edward Siebold, Abbildungen aus dem gesammtgebiete der theoretisch-praktischen geburtshülfe, 1829.

[This image was reproduced from the U.S. National Library of Medicine]

Work in progress for our exhibition

We will be holding an exhibition in November. Put the date in your diaries: 8th Nov-13th December 2017. Anna has been busily making the work that will be displayed there.


Creating work in collaboration with Dr Isabel Davis for Conceiving Histories has proven an exciting journey. The works result from an on-going conversation with Isabel on selected case studies. Over the last year and a half we have focused our attention on four case studies: Mary I’s hysterical pregnancies (1555-7); a 1793 fashion for a pad to simulate pregnancy; an 1826 idea for an Experimental Conception Hospital and mid-20th-century frog pregnancy tests.

Photo 16-06-2017, 17 27 57The starting point is most often one or a series of archival documents written at the time of the case study. The original words, the type or handwriting, stamps that appear on these documents have become an essential source of inspiration. The material aspect, the look and feel of paper or vellum, and the idea of history are key components in my creative process. The intention is to put an emphasis on the source materials, the importance of the archive and the journey the documents have made to reach us. Then, there are other inspirational elements that have had a constant presence in my practice like anatomical illustration and costumes.Photo 16-06-2017, 14 56 08

At the beginning of the collaboration I worked on these case studiesPhoto 16-06-2017, 17 50 19 individually. Lately the process has also been about creating bridges between the case studies and the stories they tell, considering ‘unpregnancy’ as a journey from the past to the present and inscribing women today into that history.

The result is a variety of different pieces, some sculptures made of paper, textiles pieces, photographs and drawings. Echoes of shape, words, object or colors work across these different media.

The selection of images featured in this post show the work in progress in my studio during Bow Arts annual open studios in June.

Photo 16-06-2017, 18 16 34