A Collection’s Resonance

This month’s blog is by Imogen Gray, manager of the Art Collection at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity.

Despite what some may think, art in hospitals is not a new phenomenon. Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity has been investing and embedding the arts into the healthcare environment throughout the long history of Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals.

Four statues by Thomas Cartwright reminded me of this fact recently as I have been coordinating a loan of these statues to the Science Museum for the inaugural exhibition of their brand-new Medicine Galleries, due to open in 2019. The statues date back to the 1680s and were produced by the stonemason of St Thomas’ Hospital, Thomas Cartwright, through a special commission made by the hospital’s governors. These limestone figures are important not just because of their age but because they were, at the time, incredibly innovative. Instead of carving saints and angels to surround the monarch Edward VI, Cartwright chose to carve figures that represented the patients the hospital treated at that time: men and women, young and old, frail and injured.

I manage the fine art and heritage collection held by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and with over 4500 artworks it is one of the largest belonging to a health charity in the UK. It is a rich and diverse collection that symbolises our hospitals’ unique histories as well as representing our longstanding commitment to the arts. The oldest items in the collection are two pewter plates that date from 1500. They show that we built the collection over centuries through our continued investment in the arts as well as the generous gifts and bequests from our community.

Visual arts is more than just pictures on walls.

The Charity works closely with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust to ensure the 2000 collection artworks that are currently on display across the Trust’s many sites, enhance the healthcare environment for the benefit of our patients, staff and visitors. Put simply, a carefully sited, high quality, original artwork improves the environment. If you then take the time to tell the story of that artwork to its audience it becomes a conversation starter and even a point of intrigue and curiosity. It is now more than a picture on the wall; it is a tool that can bring people together, help alleviate stress, bring joy, educate and even inspire.

A recent publication from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts in Health and Wellbeing provides the background for this idea. Published in July, the Charity is a proud partner of the report which presents findings of two years of evidence gathering, research and discussion with the full range of health professionals, patients, carers, policy makers and parliamentarians who are involved in the arts and health sector. The findings, in short, recognise that ‘the arts can help us aid our recovery and support longer lives better lived’. More critically, they confirm that cultural engagement helps healthcare staff to improve their own wellbeing so that in turn they can be better carers.

The Art of Portering

Being located throughout our hospitals the collection provides a prime opportunity for the hospital community to engage in the arts. My responsibility is to unlock the collections stories to ensure artworks are understood and that the collection remains relevant and meaningful to the hospital community. Collaboration is vital to realising meaningful and engaging projects, a skill I am developing as I work with Breathe Arts Health Research and Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust on delivering a brilliantly clever project titled the ‘Art of Portering’. Designed by Breathe Arts Health Research and funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity. The project encourages portering staff at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals to relate to the works of art that surround them during the daily routines in their professional lives. This pilot project empowers the hospital porters with knowledge about the fine art and heritage that is on display throughout our hospitals. We hope that by the end of the project our porters will be able to talk with confidence about the artworks with the patients and families they escort around the hospital, unlocking their ability to discover and enjoy them too.

There is, then, another added benefit. Although we are only just beginning the project it has already provided me with fascinating insight into the porters’ role in the hospital. I find out about their most travelled routes and in turn this helps informing new display sites. In the long term, this focused staff engagement helps me discover how we can create more impactful displays for all staff in general. As news of this project spreads, we’ve become more and more aware that there is a demand for this type of cultural engagement. As part of the ‘International Nurses Day’ celebrations at St Thomas’ in May I helped nurses lead tours of the artworks for their colleagues. Requests for tours continued after the event and we have carried on supporting nurses to facilitate tours for their colleagues.

Providing simple engagement opportunities like this for our clinical staff provides huge benefits. For example, we know that cultural engagement reduces work related stress – a factor that is high up the list when it comes to reasons of absence from work.

Staff and patients want to relate to the artworks that surround them; it is our responsibility to give them access to a unique and very special collection. It doesn’t just enhance the healing environment like any other medicine or therapy on offer, it helps keep us all well and provide meaning. Art has a vital and important role in our hospitals, We know this today in the same way Thomas Cartwright knew this in the 17th century. When I see his four statues I know why my work with the collection has to be a continuous interplay of tradition and innovation.

Article written by Admin
14 Aug 2017