Hospitals do not have to be about sterile rooms, uncertainty and isolation as Mark Norbury has proved at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
We all know the excitement of creating or seeing a wonderful new installation or going to an exhibition full of works that inspire and challenge. We have experienced how music and drama may comfort or revitalise us. For most of us, health and arts are important parts of our lives yet they may still seem strange bedfellows. There is no real reason why they should be. Florence Nightingale understood this when she observed over 100 years ago that patients recovered more rapidly when their surroundings were filled with colour.
A hospital is a stage where all of life’s rich pageant plays out from birth right through to our final moments. Art is an equally powerful way to explore life’s big questions and fresh perspectives. So we should not really be surprised that the best hospitals partner some of the major names of contemporary art, such as Tracey Emin, Isaac Julien and Julian Opie, and the performing arts, such as Rambert Dance and the Royal College of Music. Nor that some of our most influential curators and thinkers have led hospital commissions.
We have found that art can be at its most inspirational in the least conventional settings
The benefits of this art go beyond the intellectual, the aesthetic and the emotional. In research that the Chelsea and Westminster Health Charity supported, 31% of patients experienced a decrease in depression in the presence of music. 80% of patients said that visual art changes their mood for the better. What we are now finding is that we can bring the visual and performing arts together to powerful effect.
A recent project with Rambert Dance, our HIV clinicians, the artist Lois Conner and gallery Rossi and Rossi, exemplified how such a project can emerge. In June 2012 we acquired a set of beautiful black-and-white Lois Conner photographs of lotus flowers for our newly refurbished HIV/oncology ward. This was with the generous support of the artist, the gallery Rossi and Rossi, as well as the Chair of our Arts Advisory Board, Susan Hayden. These pieces were chosen for their optimism and tranquillity. Their installation prompted excitement from the ward staff who wanted to see how else we might creatively support the care of patients. So we thought about how we might combat the isolation HIV patients can feel during lengthy, painful treatments in individual rooms. We began through a local volunteer organisation, Song for You, to use music to bring patients together for social afternoons. Our decision was reinforced by research carried out at the hospital 20 years ago which showed how music could increase immune response in patients, critical to HIV and cancer. These ‘Tea and music’ afternoons have quickly become a major hit with patients.
But this project is only the beginning. Why? Because when patients may be grappling with powerful emotions, as well as real discomfort and pain, the arts need more than ever to offer hope and inclusion. We are now launching the next phase of our work on the HIV/oncology ward. In the spring, Rambert Dance Company will partner us to bring together three different artforms (film, poetry, dance) to two different patient groups. Inspired by talks and film screenings of productions by Rambert dancers, HIV patients will be invited to take part in poetry workshops. The poems created will then be used by teenage patients requiring difficult ongoing hospital treatment, who will work with the dancers to devise dance pieces. Both the poetry and the dance will be recorded to produce a short film that can be kept by all the patients involved. Our aim with this project is to continue breaking down the divisions between patient groups and to foster a wider communal spirit. In the process we believe that we will produce art of such a quality that both patients and artists will feel proud to have been involved.
Our ethos of bringing different artforms together to go beyond ‘what’s worked’ is also informing our work using art trails for rehabilitation. Our doctors and nurses were asking us: How can we encourage patients to walk those few feet further down a corridor each day? Or simply convince them to get out of bed for a change of scene. We have addressed this challenge with technology company, Imagineear, and the Royal College of Music. Imagineear has helped us to produce audio guides which act as a trail around the paintings, sculptures and installations in different wards. Instead of verbal information, patients are presented with music of different genres, chosen to reflect each piece of art. Not only are the audio guides an incentive for patients in their rehabilitation, but the combination of music and art helps patients relax, experience less pain, and even have a healthy debate about the way the music and art have been coupled. This brings our museum-accredited collection to life for patients who would not have engaged with it in such an in-depth way.
Using this early success as a springboard, we will launch a national competition later in 2013. We will invite young composers to write pieces of music inspired by the art in our collection, which will then be recorded on to our audio guides by musicians from the Royal College of Music. The compositions will be recorded and uploaded on to our audio guides, becoming the focal point of our art trails. These art trails will create an environment that patients and relatives can use for enjoyment, to seek comfort or to have time out from the clinical environment.
At Chelsea and Westminster, both in the hospital and as a charity, we have found that art can be at its most inspirational in the least conventional settings. It is in the fusion of visual art, dance and music that the arts will offer the most powerful healing.
Mark Norbury is Chief Executive of the Chelsea and Westminster Health Charity.