We Can Rebuild You: The Bionic Hand by Lucy Harland

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

(Douglas Adams)


Deadline-crashing habits from time served in the media die hard so here I am on the morning of 28 July with various false starts, sitting on the western-most edge of the Isle of Lewis trying to think about a bionic hand lying in a museum several hundred miles away.


Outside, long strips of crofting land and fenced-in polytunnels reflect the ages-old determination to make a living here in the face of wind and weather. Inside it’s all Apple Macs and the whirring of the washing machine.


My 10 year old likes those conversations that go, “Say there’s a rhino and an elephant in a fight, who you think would win?”. Nature v people in a fight round here? I know who I’m backing.


My object signifies the battle between technology and arbitrary events, science vs nature. A bionic hand to replace one that was lost or never there.


It’s impossible to know what it’s like to live without a hand or to live with one like this. I’ve spent months with my writing hand in a sling (I have a shoulder that doesn’t understand the basic principle of a ball and socket joint - i.e. that the ball needs to stay inside the socket …) but there’s no way I can understand what a bionic hand might mean to its owner. What can it be like to watch that hand respond to the signals sent by your brain for the first time?


I haven’t been to see my object. Quite deliberately. I’m an adopted Glaswegian not an islander so it would be possible. I know where the hand is, I just don’t want my mind to be too cluttered with my museum baggage. In my real life I operate on the other side of the museum’s green baize door … One of the things that I do is to help museums write labels. I have spent hours of my life poking through the recesses of other people’s curatorial knowledge - knowledge that they have crafted into talks, conference papers, lovingly-researched doctoral theses - and then synthesising it into 30-word object labels (and definitely no more than 30 - I am the word count police … ). Debating what can and can’t be said. What tone of voice should we use? Are ‘we’ the museum and ‘you’ the visitor? Are we sufficiently chatty? Help, are we sounding too patronising? Do we share our doubts about provenance or do we ignore what we don’t know and maintain our Victorian forefathers’ (and they were fathers, and mostly bearded ones at that …) voice of certainty? How do we make a flat iron tell a story?


It’s my bread and butter to have conversations about how to interpret things in museums. We would start by discussing the context of the gallery or display, and then the specific interpretation aims of this section and object. Perhaps we would decide to talk about the triumph of technology over nature or the story of bionics in Scotland or to simply use the words of someone who owns a hand like this as the best way of representing the personal meaning of this object?


But I’m trying to forget the day job for a few moments.


For me, what’s really interesting about this object is that points to the future. And it’s been chosen to be in the museum for precisely that reason. Unlike the other objects in the 26 Treasures, this has no historical resonance yet. A museum object without a past. It’s been chosen to show the future something about contemporary life. It’s part of a conscious choice about how to represent the present. I’ve collected things like this for museums. I have taken part in shaping that representation. But it can only ever be partial and totally subjective and we certainly can’t control what the future will think of our choices … So that’s what I will write about. The one object in 26 Treasures that has no history but is in the museum to become part of history.


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