Images Do Not Speak for Themselves

Monday, February 8, 2016 - 9:00am to Friday, June 3, 2016 - 6:00pm

Images Do Not Speak for Themselves exhibit poster

Contrary to the old adage that an image is worth a thousand words, the contents of this display argue that images don’t speak for themselves. Images play a central role in the creation and circulation of knowledge, but rather than being unmediated sources of knowledge, their making is deeply embedded in the surrounding culture. Images are not just representations meant to be taken as fact but historical sources with multiple layers of meaning that can be peeled away.

The five sections demonstrate how to engage with images using historical analysis. The first section explores changing conventions in obstetrical images from 1500 to 1900. The second provides insight into how encounters between Europeans and indigenous people in the New World were understood and depicted by both the Europeans and the indigenous people themselves. The third section demonstrates that photographs of American Indian students in boarding schools reveal not “progress” but a process of forced assimilation and cultural destruction. In the fourth section, images from physical anthropological textbooks showing the instruments used for measuring bodies demonstrate the marked difference between studying in the lab and measuring in the field. The fifth examines how a fear of “degeneracy” in America in the twentieth century led to anti-immigrant, racist, and classist propaganda for mandated birth control. Although these sections are built around widely different sources, can you to find the connections among them? For example, they all show that images need to be studied carefully and closely: what can you see? Furthermore, what can’t you see?

The display grew out of a graduate research seminar in the Department of History on images and the production of knowledge. It is organized by Scottie Buehler, Iris Clever, Preston McBride, Laura Muñoz, and Jennifer Regas-Tiari, with special thanks to Professor Soraya de Chadarevian for her guidance and support.

This display is supported in part by the Barbara and Leon Rootenberg Endowment Fund, supporting intellectual access in history of medicine and science.


Research Library (Charles E. Young)
Reading Room