OBJECT: Wax Models

(Warning: the below images show the development genitalia. Although these are wax models, they are still sensitive material, and should be viewed with reader discretion.]

[Image Description: Nine wax models mounted on a wood plague that chronicle the development of human genitals in the womb]

Wax models (made in the 19th Century), wax on wood, currently in the College of Medicine and Dental Science (University of Birmingham) (http://mimsy.bham.ac.uk/detail.php?t=objects&type=all&f=&s=Ziegler&record=18)

Object: Nine wax models mounted on wood telling a narrative of human development
Maker: Adolf and Friedrich Ziegler
Date: 19th Century

The following analysis will rely heavily on the text Embyros in Wax by Nick Hopwood as a secondary text to the actual Ziegler models in the exhibit. Hopwood claims that both Adolf and Freidrich Ziegler are ‘authors’ for the artistic role they played as model makers for the anatomical community within Germany from 1860-1920. The use of the term artist connotes an ability to deconstruct these works as not only scientific texts but as artistic texts too. Building upon his critical analysis of these wax models, it was hard to see them as anything other than texts to be both read and interpreted as literature produced by the medical profession as its knowledge of how human biology developed. Wax models were arranged to create a narrative, a story that started from conception and ended at birth. A linear interpretation of growth that documented steps towards what would become an infant of a species. For instance, Adolf Ziegler’s modelling of the chick embryo tells a developmental narrative for a period of 21 days as the embryo incubates in the shell of the egg. Therefore, considering the wax models of embryonic genital development, one can see the narrative of an agendered foetus becoming gendered as either female or male through the conflation of gender and sex. The foetus becomes either one of the binary genders that are largely considered typical in current society. Although there are identifiable moments when the foetus has neither of the assumed binary typical, fully-formed sex organ these are never demonstrated to be the end of this so-called narrative. These intersex stages of development are only shown as steps in a narrative that demonstrates a growth towards a fully formed sex organ that belongs to one of the two binary genders – masculine or feminine. The end product, the end of this journey, is either a typical penis or vagina that is associated with being feminine or masculine. Therefore, this journey is isolating any intersex development, depicting it is not the supposed end point. That people may be intersex upon birth is not considered in this documentation. It creates the typical standard for a child to be gendered upon birth based on their genitalia, which is a huge moment of oppression for many people who identify as transgender, non-binary or intersex. Hopwood even states that these models, because they were used as teaching aids, vastly created the standardisation, or normalising, of these ‘forms’ of female and male standard sex genitalia and were then used for educating future professionals who would have perpetuated this conflation between gender and the biological formation of sex organs.

Hopwood states that the de-contextualising that occurs when the model is created as removed from the full embryo, animal and species invites the viewer to ‘supply’ extra ‘context’ to these images in order to understand them as parts of a separate being. With this dehumanising approach taken to the wax models of sex organ development the view has to contextualise these parts as human. Even at their time of publication, scientists were using this breakthrough in embryonic wax modelling approach study to justify oppressive gender roles to confine and oppress even cisgendered women and men to various social spheres defined as appropriate for their gender. It demonstrates, clearly, the ability of science to be co-opted by the social and cultural environment and used falsely to justify, as supposed evidence, various forms of bigotry and oppression.


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