Every object tells a story
To mark the 75th year of the NHS, 'Our National Health Stories' is engaging thousands of staff to explore, share and reflect upon what being part of the organisation means to them, culminating in a unique portrait of an organisation through its people, told through art and creativity. Part of this exciting national programme, we are running two workshops to explore the story of Leicester’s hospitals through its collection of museum objects, and through the story of its staff. The aim of the two workshops is to collect personal and emotional stories of Leicester NHS staff members, through the lens of materiality and object-based storytelling, offering a unique lens to explore their lived experience.
These workshop will use two methods: object-based storytelling to reflect on personal stories of lived experience; and a flat lays display methodology inspired by the work of The Lyme Museum to deliver the stories into a physical photographic display to be exhibited at the hospital. The two methods are what we call art-based creative methods and they allow for a participatory approach to data collection (stories) and creation (flat lays & exhibit).
Hear from The Lyme Museum founder, Dr Angela Stienne, on what those workshops are about and which object she would pick to tell her own story of the NHS, this time as a patient.
A few words about me: I am a museum researcher from Paris, where I live, but I have spent six years in Leicester, studying museum studies and working as a creative researcher in what we call the medical humanities: the intersection of arts, medicine and the humanities, with a focus on bioethics. A lot of my work is around rethinking our relationship to bodies and material things, and how that intersects with museums narratives. With these workshops, I want to help us think together about a big word: materiality! What’s materiality? Well, it’s stuff mostly, but it’s also the way that stuff embodies meanings and the meanings that we ourselves give to stuff. The dictionary will tell you that materiality is the quality or character of being material; I will tell you that materiality is the physical and metaphysical essence of objects and bodies. Don’t worry I have examples coming up! The starting point is that the way we think about our body and the way we think about the stuff we carry around has meaning; and more interestingly, we quite possibly don’t think much about our body (until our back hurts for example) or about the stuff we carry in our bag or display in our homes, but the fact that they gravitate around you is meaningful. Every object tells a story.
Since 2020, The Lyme Museum has been collecting flat lays, which are photographs of objects taken from above, that have been taken by individuals around the world who have chronic illnesses: chronic migraine, diabetes, chronic Lyme disease, endometriosis etc. They have in common that they often struggled to put words to their lived experience because they have what we often call ‘invisible illnesses’. How can we describe the invisible? The Lyme Museum invited them to do just that, by looking around them, and thinking about the objects they carry with them and that help them through their day to day lived experience. They started looking in their bags and their pharmacy, and they looked for medicine, but also objects that comfort them and help them escape. And they put them together and took pictures. We now have over 25 flat lays from around the world. The objects? Some are quite familiar to medical practitioners, as they are typical medical assistive devices and medicine and supplements; other are objects we find repeated and that are quite mundane: hot water bottles, a laptop, a bottle of water, fruits; other again are sentimental objects, books and candles that help escape the daily life. What these individuals did is they shared their story through everyday objects; a lived experience expressed through materiality.
The thing with stuff is that whether we want it or not, it has value, and a lot of it is societal value (this car, this phone, this bag that signify x amount of money, that signify status etc.), but objects can also have more situated value within groups and communities. For example, you wouldn’t believe how many conversations I have had with people from the chronic illness community about hot water bottles! Quite possibly, we don’t attribute much value to hot water bottles except when the heating breaks, but as a health tool, and an everyday object in some groups, the hot water bottle become something else: its materiality and meaning changes; and before you know it, you start collecting them and explore what lush soft hot water bottle to order for the next holidays, and you put one in every suitcase! I love the hot water bottle as an example because I can’t think of a less attractive and mundane object at first: it’s old, and it literally hasn’t evolved technologically, and yet it’s the most repeated object in the flat lays we've collected, and if you’ve ever had period or stomach cramp, you will actually realise that the hot water bottle is the unsung hero: well until we actually did put it in a museum last winter, in Leicester, at a place called the Doc Media Centre!
As a creative facilitator for this project with Leicester Hospitals, I wanted to share my own object-based story, from Paris to Leicester, and to the Leicester Infirmary, and I’m going to share my own object, which is a small object, that in itself had a meaning, but the one I attributed to it is different: whatever the object picked, it has a story to tell. This is my object: it is a silver pendant called an Eye of Horus that I received as a gift from an Egyptian shop in Paris. I received it when I was much younger. Because when I was quite young, two main things happen, and one of them is that I wanted to be an Egyptologist and that is what took me to England, where I moved to from Paris to study Egyptology, and then museum studies. It is my love for ancient Egypt that ended up taking me on the path to relocating to Leicester (best museum studies department!). At the same time, when I was quite young, I became quite ill, and I started to carry around this eye because it is an ancient Egyptian symbol for healing and well-being, and so I would keep it with me when I had to go to classes or conferences or traveling. It is a talisman, and very much a superstition on my part, but one I continue, putting it in my wallet as I go to specific events. My illness transformed one day, and that day I was walking down the street in Leicester, and I had to stop, because my knee stopped working. And so, I ended up at the Leicester Infirmary, and a few months later while I was back in Paris, my knee got punctured and I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease.
I do not know if I had the Eye of Horus with me the day my knee was all swollen, but I do know that whenever I see this pendant, I do not see it as its function – a necklace, a piece of jewelry – but instead I attribute meanings to it that lie at the intersection of my passion for ancient Egypt, my hope for healing, my slightly unacademic attachment to symbolism, and my intertwined journey of illness and research, and the way that my work in medical humanities and my lived experience are linked, and find their connection in such small objects. So this is how I attribute meaning to objects; and yes I do own many hot water bottles! My word for this object would be: journey.
Just like this story I retell through the materiality of this small silver object: every object tells a story. For these workshops, each NHS member of staff joining us has been invited to bring with them one object. Together, we will explore what materiality means and how objects can hold meanings and help us tell stories and share experiences. Storytelling is at the heart of these workshops: together we will share stories of lived and shared experiences, allowing a safe and creative space to reflect, share, create, and contribute to 'Our National Health Stories'. Each person will pick a word that they would use to describe their emotion, journey, aspiration. It doesn't have to be directly linked to their day to day NHS work; it is an opportunity to have an even more expansive emotional engagement with the object they brought. The chosen word will be added to the picture of their object. Each object will be photographed individually. At the end of each workshop, all the objects are put together for a single group picture of the objects. The single object photos and the group picture will be incorporated into a final exhibition!
In the next few weeks we will hear the object-based stories of the University of Leicester Hospital NHS staff and create an exhibition together to celebratre Our National Health Stories. Stay tuned following the Arts and Heritage University Hospitals Leicester Twitter account.