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"What do we see when we look at one another? What aspects of a person help us decide who they are? What assumptions do we make about identities based on colour and body image?

This exhibition that took place in 2007 was about visible differences. It explored the representations of black African children and adults living with rare skin pigmentation conditions in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It uncovered their stories, looked at how their conditions were interpreted and the ways in which they were described and displayed.

[Above, right: Medical log of a slave ship, 1792. From the collections of the Library at The Royal College of Surgeons of England]

Approaches to skin and body differences in the 18th century were varied. The medical community attempted to categorise people as specimens – examples of how human beings had deviated from what was considered normal. For the public, curiosity about body difference became a form of entertaining spectacle. People went to fairs and shows to view giants, dwarves, fat people, spotted children and black albinos, all of whom were considered wonders of nature.

How much of this has changed? Are we as curious about visible differences now as people were then? What is it like to live with similar conditions today? Through the stories presented here we can begin to explore these challenging concepts, and to make connections with our own experiences of living with a visible difference"

Temi Odumosu, Exhibition Curator

Hidden histories

On display in the exhibition were two rare paintings of black African slave children. The little-known portraits depict Mary Sabina (right), who was born in South America in 1736, and George Alexander Gratton (featured on the Exhibiting Difference landing page), who was born in St Vincent in 1808. Both children had piebaldism - a rare genetic skin pigmentation condition causing extreme white patches on the skin.

George and Mary were among many black African men, women and children with similar conditions who were exhibited at public fairs and in private "curiosity collections" as freaks of nature. Their images are recorded in the museum and library collections and these paintings, prints and drawings illustrate the popular fascination at that time with unusual bodies. Such images challenge the viewer to consider their own curiosity about visible differences.

View images from the exhibition

Contemporary voices

During the Enlightenment period when new theories about the nature of human races emerged, skin conditions like vitiligo and piebaldism challenged established definitions and conventions. As social outcasts and medical phenomena, black people with spotted, patched or white bodies became a sought after commodity.

In a world focused on image, beauty "standards" and definable identities, living with a skin pigmentation condition can be a challenge. By talking to people with albinism and vitiligo we have gained an insight into how these visible conditions have had an impact on their sense of identity.

The exhibition sought to find out how much has changed and through the contemporary voices of individuals living today with skin pigmentation conditions, whether people are not equally as curious about visible differences now, as they were two hundred years ago.

Listen to the audio interviews

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