Manifesto for a Visual Medical Humanities

By Dr Fiona Johnstone

The medical humanities have recently taken a ‘visual turn’. Medical schools run modules aimed at increasing students’ visual literacy through exposure to artworks, and artists are engaged to teach ‘soft’ skills such as empathy. Art therapy is enjoying a renaissance, and the arts are celebrated for their ability to promote and produce wellbeing.[1] The visual has been welcomed as one possible alternative to narrative’s longstanding dominance in the medical humanities,[2] and scholars from a range of disciplines are becoming increasingly alert to the affective, communicative and critical possibilities offered by a sustained engagement with visual materials. However, as the editors of the Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities acknowledge, visual culture (encompassing museum studies and art history and practice) has not been as influential as other disciplines (such as literature, history and increasingly, social sciences) in the development of the medical humanities to date;[3] arguably its full potential has yet to be realised.

To explore this, a recent roundtable Interdisciplinary Entanglements: Towards a Visual Medical Humanities invited six participants – art historians Suzannah Biernoff (Birkbeck), Ed Juler (Newcastle), and Susan Sidlauskas (Rutgers); artist Zoë Mendelson (Wimbledon UAL); and two representatives from the museums sector, James Peto (Wellcome Trust), and Natasha McEnroe (Science Museum) – to imagine the possibility of a ‘visual medical humanities’. Scheduled as part of the Association for Art History’s 2018 Annual Conference, the panel asked how academics and practitioners critically invested in visual and material culture might better articulate the value of this work to medical humanities scholars based in other disciplines. Whilst the full depth and breadth of the discussion cannot be conveyed in this short text, I have identified four key points that might function as a preliminary manifesto for a visually engaged medical humanities.

  1. A visual medical humanities is not limited to an investigation of images (although this might play a part) but is grounded in an expanded understanding of the visual as an embodied perceptual experience that also involves the other senses, and which often has an affective quality. It is essential that a visually engaged medical humanities pay attention to the phenomenological and emotional dimensions of visual experience, as well as to the issues of representation, power and ideology that have dominated to date.
  2. A visual medical humanities understands that the value of the visual is not limited to the illustrative (for example, as a way of making existing academic research more ‘accessible’); nor to the purely instrumental (for example, as a way of producing more ‘empathetic’ doctors). A visual medical humanities is at its most productive when it proceeds from a shared set of interests: for example, if the history of medicine is a history of how we care for ourselves and each other – that is, a history of what it means to be human – then the history of art (to take just one particular aspect of visual experience) addresses a similar set of concerns; given this, it seems natural that these two disciplines should be explored in dialogue with each other.
  3. A visual medical humanities embraces ambiguity. A visual artefact – be that image, object, or an entirely different category of item – can facilitate the suspension of certainty and function as a site for productive doubt. This ambiguity is often particularly evident in the case of the art object, yet is it also suggested by visual forms less obviously open to subjective interpretation, such as clinical objects, medical records or other purportedly documentary or evidentiary materials.
  4. A visual medical humanities asks questions about our expectations of what certain types of visual artefact can do for us (recognising that this ‘us’ is not a unified singular entity, but plural and diverse); it also notes that these expectations are contingent on context. For example, given a growing trend for medical museums to commission artworks to be displayed alongside other categories of museological objects, it might be productive to explore the kind of work that art is being required to do in these specific environments; for example, an artwork might commonly be asked to act as a marker for subjectivity, or as a way of articulating the ‘patient experience’.

As I have argued elsewhere, if the medical humanities are to become more ‘entangled’ in a disciplinary sense,[4] then it is crucial that the contributions made by the study of art and visual culture are afforded a more sustained analysis than has been the case to date. This could be achieved through establishing an active visual medical humanities network; this would not only represent the interests of those already involved in visual research and practice – artists, art historians and curators – but would also ensure that scholars in other disciplines are equipped with the tools required to critically engage with visual culture in all its complex and ambiguous richness.


Interdisciplinary Entanglements: Towards a Visual Medical Humanities was convened by Dr Fiona Johnstone and Dr Natasha Ruiz-Gomez as part of the Association for Art History’s 2018 Annual Conference. Thank you to Suzannah Biernoff, Ed Juler, Natasha McEnroe, Zoë Mendelson, James Peto and Susan Sidlauskas, for contributing to such a productive and enriching conversation.


[1] All-Party Parlimentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, July 2017, pp. 1–192.

[2] Angela Woods, ‘The Limits of Narrative: Provocations for the Medical Humanities’, Medical Humanities, 37 (2011), 73–78.

[3] Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods, ‘Introduction’, in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, ed. by Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), pp. 1–49 (p. 19).

[4] The notion of ‘entanglement’ is taken from Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, ‘Entangling the Medical Humanities’, in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, ed. by Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), pp. 35–49.

(Visited 5,154 times, 1 visits today)