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Case Studies / Disability Narratives

Case Study: Prosthetics in Museums

Museum collections often contain unexpected objects that give voice to narratives of disability. These prosthetics reveal surprising insights into the past as well as creativity, ingenuity, and design.

Fake Toe at the Cairo Museum

The fake toe from the Cairo museum in Egypt was found in 2000 in a tomb near the ancient city of Thebes. Archaeologists speculated the 50- to 60-year-old woman the prosthesis came from might have lost her toe due to complications from diabetes.

The wood and leather prosthesis dates from 1069 to 664 B.C., based on artifacts it was found with in the mummy’s burial chamber. This means it predates what was previously thought of as the earliest known functioning prosthesis, the Roman Capua Leg, a bronze artifact dating from about 300 B.C. The leg was once at the Royal College of Surgeons in London but was destroyed by bombing during World War II.

Reconstructing Lives. Exhibit at the National War Museum, Scotland, March 2012 – April 2013

Reconstructing Lives took a fascinating and moving look at the experience of those who have lost limbs in war, whether military or civilian, and the technology which helps rebuild their lives.Throughout history, many people have lost limbs as a result of conflicts around the world. This exhibition focused on the prosthetic limbs that were developed to help them rebuild their lives.

“Reconstructing Lives” told the story of the development of prosthetics from armour-like iron hands of the 16th century through to 21st century carbon-fibre running blades, with real examples, powerful images, and the amputees’ own stories.

Although replacements such as ‘peg legs’ were made in Roman times, the number of people who survived amputations increased dramatically with medical developments from the middle of the 19th century. Around 41,000 British amputees came from the First World War, leading to an increase in research into prosthetics. The current conflict in Afghanistan is leading to more amputations on military personnel, and civilians being affected by landmines.

On display were prosthetics ranging from a 16th century iron hand to a modern i-limb hand developed by Touch Bionics.

Prosthetics and Beauty: Alexander McQueen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrew Bolton: McQueen made this ensemble with carved prosthetic legs for Aimee Mullins. Mullins is a world-class Paralympic athlete, and she modeled the boots for his 1999 show, No. 13.

Aimee Mullins: They were solid wood, solid ash, so there’s no give in the ankle. So any kind of a runway walk that I had practiced went out the window. And then suddenly they laced me into this leather bodice, and there were some spinning discs in the floor of the runway, which I had, while practicing in these wooden legs, you know . . . was very conscious of how to avoid them. But now that my neck was secured in this almost neck-brace position, I couldn’t look down. I couldn’t even see where the spinning discs were. And I just remember thinking, “Okay, you’ve done the Olympics. You’ve done harder things than this. You can do this. You can survive it.”

And you know, the fact is, nobody knew that they were prosthetic legs. They were the star of the show—these wooden boots peeking out from under this raffia dress—but in fact, they were actually legs made for me.

His clothes have always been very sensuous, and I mean the full gamut of that. So hard and strict and unrelenting, as life can be sometimes. And then this incredibly romantic swishing of the raffia.

In McQueen’s Words

“When I used Aimee [Mullins] for [this collection], I made a point of not putting her in . . . sprinting legs [prostheses for running]. . . . We did try them on but I thought no, that’s not the point of this exercise. The point is that she was to mould in with the rest of the girls.”

– See more at:

Aimee Mullens, athlete, fashion icon, actor, advocate, and design innovator speaking at the Project Access New York/Art Beyond Sight symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, May 2, 2013.

wood and leather toe prosthetic

2700 year old toe prosthetic from the Cairo Museum

Hand fitted with four-finger i-limb digits.

Reconstructing Lives Exhibit: Hand fitted with four-finger i-limb digits.

wooden carved prosthetic leg by Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen: Carved wooden prosthetic leg for Aimee Mullins


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