In Our Own Voices – Leaving New Craigs

8 Dec 2009 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

Centre for Health Science, Raigmore, Inverness, 2009

Three piece suite

Three piece suite

In Our Own Voices is an important and illuminating exhibition, the culmination of a project initiated in 2008 by Sense Scotland with assistance from the Heritage Lottery. The exhibition reflects a process of momentous change both in the lives of people living and working in the last long stay hospitals in Scotland and in relation to evolving social and cultural attitudes to care in our community.

Project Curator Karrie Marshall gathered stories from archived documents, nursing staff, therapists, doctors, estates and trades staff, relatives, volunteers, public services, social services and people who had lived in the hospitals at Craig Dunain (1864-1999), Craig Phadraig (1969-2000) and the learning disability units of New Craigs (opened in 2000).

A variety of creative approaches including story box constructions, collage, drama, audio and video recordings were used to capture the life experiences of staff and residents making the transition from institutionalised care to care in the community.

While understandably a great deal of the material gathered remains private, personal and social strands of the exhibition revealed in artworks, objects, film, projection, soundscape and written recollections successfully communicate to a wider public what life was like in long stay hospitals.

Bedroom Cubicle

Bedroom Cubicle

Making this hidden Highland history visible is vitally important, especially with the recent redevelopment of sites such as Craig Dunain. The exhibition utilises the traditional function of storytelling as part of a personal and collective process of commemoration and identification. Human experience is the baseline of this exhibition, presented in a way that gently encourages the viewer to connect with the material displayed and challenge assumptions about those affected by mental health issues and learning disabilities.

The meaning and association of objects linked to human memory is one of the most compelling elements of the exhibition. Our perception of everyday objects, our belongings and personal space are redefined by the “seating memories” of wheelchair, hospital chair and toilet, the comfort of warmth and sound provided by a radiator in the day room or the confined privacy of “Catherine’s Room”, a reconstructed 6 x 8 bedroom cubicle.

Hospital wallpaper projections by Andy Crossan give new meaning to the associations of interior design, while questions posed to the viewer on the storyboards link our own interior spaces to those of the long stay residents and staff. The stories and recollections are humorous, painful and insightful in equal measure, a reflection of life both inside and outside institutional walls.

From the Craig Dunain archive, John MacNaught’s Mind Your Head, a collection of boxed limited edition prints on fragile Japanese paper, together with found objects from the grounds, provide a fascinating visual exploration of the site and its human history. The relationships formed and the social life within the hospitals conveyed by photographs and text are part of an essential need to belong that we all share.

Preservation of identity within an institutionalised environment is a strong thread throughout the exhibition, and what resoundingly emerges are the strength of voices we are seldom given the opportunity to hear. The deeply personal nature of each individual journey shared with the viewer is part of a wider process of recognition.

The premise of the exhibition, that “Stories are the way we explain the world to ourselves and the way we explain ourselves to the world” is universally accessible, and the potential scope to develop this project further is considerable.

The stories of the participants and the response of visitors in the “Reflections” room are testimony to the role art has to play in creating a culture of understanding and I sincerely hope that following its display in Glasgow the exhibition will return to the Highlands for a much longer duration. There is the opportunity for greater public engagement with this material through further creative work and for many more voices to be heard.

© Georgina Coburn, 2009