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Future Face Exhibition at the Science Museum, London

by Victoria Lucas

15th November 2004

What makes a face? Why are faces so important to our sense of identity? How do people react towards damaged and different faces? What will the face of the future look like?
Michael Jackson's police mugshot (image courtesy of the Science Museum)
These are some of the questions posed by a fascinating new exhibition, Future Face, currently at the Science Museum in London. Curated by Sandra Kemp, Director of Research at the Royal College of Art, Future Face is a multidisciplinary exhibition that integrates art, science and medicine. It is also accompanied by a book and CD-ROM of the same name. There are many different themes to this exhibition, but I went along to take a look at some of the ideas it brings up about facial disfigurement.

There are many different faces on show, but there is one that stands out above all the others because it belongs to a man we all recognise - Michael Jackson. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Sandra Kemp writes that Jackson's face is central to her project because it was "the first high profile face to portray a physical transition from African to Caucasian, changing colour and shape".
First World War photograph: fitting anaesthetic mask (image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust)
The exhibition displays a reproduction of the police mugshot of Jackson taken in 2003, which for the first time displayed to the public the shocking extent to which his face had changed appearance. Gone was the face of the handsome young black boy from the '70s and '80s; in its place, a bright white face, almost mask-like, with dark mascara around the eyes.

Looking at this image, it occurred to me that Michael Jackson is the world's most famous disfigured man. I call him 'disfigured' because his face, for whatever reason, has gone from being normal to abnormal, exposed to concealed, admired to distrusted. But looking at this image, I realised that the media have turned him into the disfigured villain whom it's OK to hate - I myself remember sneering with disgust at this photograph when it first appeared in the tabloids.

The worldwide release of this mugshot made us all complicit to a sensational freakshow. It feeds in to all the stereotypes of disfigurement being equal to badness and difference. For some people, this is probably there only image of disfigurement.

Further into the exhibition is a section called Limits of the face, which looks at the history and development of facial surgery - in particular, the techniques used on the damaged faces of soldiers from the First World War.
First World War photograph: gunner wearing prosthesis (image courtesy of the Wellcome Trust)
I was fascinated to learn that during the Great War, there was a hospital in London that had a 'Masks for Facial Disfigurements Department'. Its nickname was 'The Tin Noses Shop'. The unit specialised in making masks for veterans whose faces had been surgically repaired, but still appeared extremely scarred and disfigured. The masks would be used to cover the scarred section of the face, to help give the veterans some appearance of normality. On display are reproductions of six black and white photographs showing a disfigured veteran during the process of having one of these masks produced. I found these images very moving.

Another section of the exhibition concerns identity and how we interpret faces. Here, visitors can view four colour photographs of people with disfigurements taken for the charity Changing Faces. Where the image of Michael Jackson elicits a response of shock, and the images of the First World War veteran elicits a response of deep sympathy, these photographs show another side to disfigurement. One of them is of a young girl called Hannah. She was born with a birthmark and she is photographed being cuddled by her mother. It is an image of a happy, normal, beautiful little girl whose birthmark has not stopped her from being a loving and loved child. If only people saw more images like this one.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the exhibition was an interactive Face Morph (the Interactive Face Transformer by Dave Perrett, 2004). It takes an image of your face and you then select different face morph options, such as 'chimp', 'older', 'baby' and 'African'. So, for example, by selecting 'older', your face morphs into what you would look like as a pensioner, complete with wrinkles and liver spots. I was too much of a chicken to go on the machine myself, but my boyfriend very bravely had a go. The sight of my bearded beloved's face morphed into that of a baby's - complete with beard - was one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

What does this have to do with facial disfigurement? Well, nothing actually, except that it was a bloody good laugh. However, it did occur to me that my impairment, Cherubism, might ultimately be just another option on God's face morph machine.
Photos courtesy of the Science Museum and the Wellcome Trust.

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