Foreign Bodies unites swallowed swords and bicycles from UCL vaults

By Ben Miller | 25 March 2013

Exhibition preview: Foreign Bodies, University College London, London, until July 14 2013

A photo of a couple of see-through jars on a black and red slab
Foreign Objects removed from the bladder, from the UCL Pathology Collection© G Angel
Potentially not for the squeamish, the surgical curiosities, ancient artefacts and artworks here – collected from across UCL’s four museums – include the blade which did for an 18th century sword swallower, coins, nails, butterfly-tattooed bits of skin and, in an object unsurprisingly described as having entered a body through “less conventional ways”, a toy bicycle.

“In the 18th century, extraordinary eaters came to the attention of surgeons,” explains Sarah Chaney, of the Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines, alluding to some of the striking specimens rarely put on public display.

“These were people who swallowed multiple objects in return for payment.

“The sword swallower’s sword in the UCL collections fits into this category: unfortunately for this particular performer, he accidentally pierced his throat. His heart and perforated oesophagus can also be found in the collections.”

The broader question, perhaps, is where the line lies between human and animal, living and organic. Could the ink of tattoos, or the limbs of a growing baby, be considered foreign bodies?

“Throughout time, the experience of pregnancy has differed vastly,” says Lisa Plotkin, who has helped research the show.

“Our collective perceptions of the foetus in utero have shifted with it.

“Is the foetus a separate, foreign entity within a woman’s sovereign body, or is the foetus an inextricably familiar thing? Where does a woman’s body end and another life begin?”

There’s definitely an alien feel to the accompanying stone figurine depictions of communities. And there’s also a definitive trail for visitors around the four academic museums, including the gawp-inducing cabinets held by The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and the Grant Museum of Zoology.

  • Open 9am-5pm (closed Sunday). Admission free. Follow the university collections on Twitter @UCLMuseums.

More pictures:

A photo of various surgical foreceps on a white surface
A selection of forceps© UCL Teaching and Research Collects
An image of an artwork showing a painting of a Japanese monkey
Ohara Koson, Japanese woodblock print of a trained monkey looking at an insect (circa 1900)© UCL Art Museum
A photo of various x-rays and small specimens
Swallowed Objects with X-Rays, from the UCL Pathology Collection© G Angel
an x-ray showing a toy bicycle in the oesephogus
An x-ray of a swallowed toy bicycle.© London Royal Hospital Archive
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