James Poskett: Material and visual culture of conferences

Conferences can be somewhat dry affairs. Papers delivered as long droning monologues are liable to send even the most hardened academics into a dreary stupor. The more enticing discussions can also take their toll as the days wear on, debate often returning to ancient disputes. So what better way to break up the day and keep everyone fresh than with an outing to the cinema?

At the recent Communicating Reproduction conference we were all sent to see Helga (1967). Of course, this outing wasn’t frivolous but rather an opportunity for us to engage with the substance of the conference: the history of reproduction through communication including text, images, film and sound.

Helga was certainly not what I was expecting and was about as far removed from a Hollywood blockbuster as one can imagine. As we sat down Uta Schwarz of the Federal Centre for Health Education in Cologne explained that we were about to watch an hour-long West German sex education film! The picture centred on a young West German couple preparing for conception and birth. But, as was picked up on later in our discussion, there was a real mishmash of genres in there. Whilst following the couple we were treated to shots of copulating animals, a dream sequence, artistic shots of (aborted) foetuses and a diagrammatic lesson on reproductive anatomy. There was even an exercise video sequence in which the expectant mother, Helga, took part in an antenatal class, stretching to touch her toes and lift her abdomen.

All this got us thinking about how the social and political world of 1960s Germany had influenced the production of such a genre-spanning piece of cinema. The film occupied an uneasy point between global and local concerns. On the one hand there was a widespread perception at the time that the global population was increasing uncontrollably. Contraception was therefore high on the agenda, hence the clinical and anatomical treatment of the subject. But, on the other hand, the West German government was troubled by the fact that the maternal mortality rate was lower on the other side of the Wall. The film’s treatment of antenatal preparation reflected this. In short, Hegla attempted to promote a particular model of planned parenthood: one that encouraged West German proliferation whilst maintaining population stability.

So, the cinema outing certainly proved fruitful. It also demonstrated how important it is for conferences to embrace a wide range of media and methods. Historians, sociologists and anthropologists have increasingly emphasised the value of material culture, oral history, images, music and film in their work. This needs to be reflected in the way conferences are presented. If we believe material culture is important to the medical humanities then we must confront it at conferences. We should be lifting nineteenth-century forceps, inspecting pharmaceutical packaging and feeling for contours on cuneiform tablets. These practices are usually undertaken in isolation by individual scholars. We might find that, in the collaborative environment of a conference, we better understand the collaborative world in which such material existed. At the very least, it would liven up a long day.