Conceiving Histories Exhibition

A review by Kerry, More to Life Member

The Peltz Gallery, Birbeck College, University of London

This exhibition came about partly because literary historian, Dr. Isabel Davis, was curious as to whether “something that hasn’t happened could have a history?” Working alongside Artist, Anna Burel, they have produced what initially appears to be a simple presentation of varying materials demonstrating historical events and text from a wide range of sources. But this, mixed with the artistic interpretation of that archived data, had me blown away by multiple layers of sensitively referenced religious, scientific and personal experience.

Each piece stood alone and yet intertwined with its neighbour. There seemed many themes behind the one topic of un-pregnancy. For some, such as Mary Tudor, pregnancy did appear to happen, was very real. Financial and social consequences such as that of legitimacy of offspring were highlighted. There was even the peculiar method of confirming pregnancy by means of a frog [honestly] used up until the 1960’s. And a suggested ‘experiment’ imprisoning women to work out human gestation was alarming even as a supposed joke!

One group of prints had the outline of a woman holding a piece of paper with text of results of a pregnancy test, her shoulders hanging low. Is she disappointed or relieved? The weightlessness of the paper held down by the weight of the words upon it perhaps.

The ceiling holds an installation of disembodied wombs, possibly literally elevating these organs to iconic status. Our pronatalist culture may support that interpretation. Their varying shapes and sizes though maybe point to the individual nature of female reproduction. Their varying content of text, objects etc perhaps highlighting the personal stories that lie therein.

All in all, what might appear to be a formal looking exhibition turns out to be anything but. It invites the audience to spend time in these women’s lives, literally walk among them [well, their wombs at least]. Images hang flat against the walls but have layers of questions bursting out of them. The answers though are the viewers alone.

I went along in part because I enjoy History, anthropology and having my view of the world challenged in some way. I was not disappointed. I’ve also been un-pregnant my whole life and dealing with that still proves difficult. Some of the pieces stirred emotions [some sadness but some humour] but isn’t that what Art should do? So, does the exhibition meet its own brief. Can something that didn’t happen have a history? Yes, it can. It does. I know because it does so within me.


All images ©Anna Burel 2017

Many thanks to Kerry for taking the time to write this review for us.

Find out more about this exhibition here.

The Conceiving Histories project has free exhibition catalogues to give away. The catalogue includes images and information about the project. If you would like one, send your name and postal address to Isabel Davis at