“Bespoke Bodies” Showcases Art and Science of Prosthetic Limbs

Published: 30 April 2023

By Larry Borowsky
via the Amplitude magazine web site


Many of today’s prosthetic design concepts have their roots in World War I. A major museum exhibit connects the dots.

In its day, the Carnes arm represented the absolute pinnacle of prosthetic technology. Commercially introduced in 1910 by the Carnes Artificial Limb Company, the device paired mechanical sophistication with cosmetic elegance. “We manufacture the only artificial arm in the world that you can do all kinds of work with,” the firm’s promotional literature asserted. Because it articulated with the muscles in the residual limb, the prosthesis supposedly enabled wearers to tie a necktie, use a knife and fork, grip a bicycle’s handlebars, and retrieve individual bills from a wallet.

The Western world’s top surgeons were duly impressed when the Carnes arm was presented at a European conference in 1913. Two years later, the marvelous innovation won the top prize at the Panama-Pacific Exposition (a world’s fair held in San Francisco). And in the early years of World War I, before the United States entered the conflict, the German government licensed Carnes’ technology and began mass-producing knockoffs for the legions of soldiers who were coming home as amputees.

There’s quite a bit more to that story, and it’s just one of the fascinating narratives woven into “Bespoke Bodies,” which opens in May at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. This sprawling exhibition traces the evolution of prosthetic design over the last five or six centuries, spotlighting dozens of artifacts. It may be the largest collection of prosthetic relics ever displayed. And it uniquely positions amputees as active agents—not merely passive beneficiaries—of technological innovation.

“We’re talking about more than functionality,” curator Amanda Hawkins said in a 2018 interview. “[Prosthetics meet] a social and emotional need. We’re listening to the people who use them and design them, many of whom are amputees. We’re seeing things that we didn’t know were a possibility, and that are now celebrated.”

Developed by the Boston-based Design Museum Everywhere, “Bespoke Bodies” debuted in 2018 and was meant to tour the country as a traveling exhibition. The pandemic derailed those intentions, however. The show has only been on display in a handful of cities, never for more than a few weeks at any given stop.

The Kansas City exhibition is scheduled to run for 11 months, stretching well into the spring of 2024, so it offers the first really good chance for the public to experience this unique set of perspectives on limb loss.

And because it’s being staged in a museum that commemorates World War I, this particular iteration of “Bespoke Bodies” carries an extra layer of meaning: the critical role wounded warriors have played in pushing prosthetic technology to meet every kind of human need.

Read the entire article on the Amplitude web site here:

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