The Fetus In Utero: From Mystery to Social Media

Rosslin 1528, cropped detail

Curated by Brian Callender, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, The University of Chicago; and Margaret Carlyle, Postdoctoral Researcher and Instructor, Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, The University of Chicago

Once restricted to the privacy of the doctor’s office, ultrasound images of the fetus are now immediately recognizable in the public arena, through advertising and social media, where posts tagged “baby’s first pic” are commonplace. These depictions of the fetus in utero have become iconic and are arguably the most easily recognized medical image. How and why did this happen? And at what price and to what end?

This exhibition takes an historical approach to this question by exploring the complex evolution of the fetal image in Western Christian culture. We show that before images of the fetus in utero entered the digital age, they have been deployed in three distinctive ways over the past 500 years. First, during the Renaissance, the fetus in utero transformed from an object of divine mystery to one of "rational" inquiry at the hands of male anatomists. Second, from 1700–1965, images of the fetus in uterus underwent a process of medicalization through the male medical gaze. Third, from 1965–present, the fetus in utero has been curated as a public image by a variety of individuals and movements steeped in social and political contexts.

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