Blog logging visitor responses to 'And The Band Played On..', an art installation by Eleanor Crook that shows five soldiers from four different conflicts with typical facial injuries and contemporary reconstructive surgery.
A man who works in the plastics department at the hospital told me a something which I found extremely sad and especially poignant as the exhibition draws to a close. He said that in WWI soldiers who had facial injuries were often trained as cinema projectionists when they returned home. This was because projectionists worked in the dark and therefore no one could see their faces. They found it so difficult to get a job where people would be looking at their injury that doing this type of work became their only option. Having worked alongside these figures for the duration of the exhibition I find this hugely distressing. I have gotten so used to their faces that it seems utterly barbaric to make them work in the dark.
I’m sure that two more visitors I spoke to today would have the same reaction as me when hearing about these poor men. This couple were extremely touched by the installation with the man saying he felt very choked up by it. They talked about people with facial injuries being side-lined and not given the attention that other wounded soldiers receive; they said that the soldiers picked to lay poppies at the Cenotaph for the centenary showed this as there were no servicemen with facial wounds. They stayed and chatted with me for quite some time and were hugely enthusiastic about the piece being seen by more people and were pleased when I told them it was being moved to Exeter. The woman said she really hoped it got a permanent place in a museum as it is important for people to see and have their eyes opened to the suffering of others.
Soldiers today may not be forced to hide but Eleanor and her art opened my mind, and the minds of our visitors, to the fact that not enough publicity or respect is given to servicemen and women with facial injuries. People with facial injuries can be marginalised and isolated and I hope that this exhibition has played a small part in ensuring that this does not continue.
On the penultimate day of “And The Band Played On…” at The Florence Nightingale Museum reactions to the piece varied from shock and surprise to amazement and avid interest. I have become used to these reactions as they are common place in the exhibition room; it is worth remembering however, that even though the exhibition is nearly over and I am used to people’s reactions they are seeing and reacting to the piece for the first time.
Today a very nervous little boy was brought in by his dad, he asked lots of questions about all of the soldiers and his dad let him take the lead on what he wanted to talk to me about. He seemed less worried by the end and I really tried to put him at ease, but said he thought the WWII pilot was “very scary looking”. He said it was sad that “they looked scary but good that doctors where making them better”; I think this is the response of a lot of our visitors summed up brilliantly and concisely.
Another visitor was interested in prosthetics and told me she is doing a course on how to make people look injured through the use of makeup and cosmetics. She said she was going to take inspiration from the buttons and perhaps try that out. I pointed her in the direction of Eleanor’s website and the blog for photos so that she can study the injuries as and when she needs them. During the exhibitions run I have never thought about the similarities between what Eleanor does and makeup artists for TV and film; they too have to create the look and visual impact of wounds. Eleanor creates the whole figure whilst the makeup or prosthetic artist adds to what is already there, yet it cannot be denied that the research they must undertake and the skill involved overlaps hugely.
Today was my last day talking to visitors about ‘And The Band Played On…’ and the range of interesting conversations I had seemed a fitting goodbye to the installation.
This morning, one woman pointed out the increasing gravity of the soldiers’ impairments as medical innovations allow people to live with more and more severe injuries. She appeared to view this positively, impressed at the conservation of life, but her friend questioned whether everyone would want to live with such serious disabilities. It was clear that she would not. In addition to fearing a decreased quality of life, she seemed repulsed by the idea of having someone else’s hands transplanted on to her arms, no matter how functional they were. In contrast, a visitor in the afternoon told me the story of a fair-haired veteran who had received a hand from a dark-haired donor. Not only did he not mind having someone else’s hand, the thick black hair that grew on it did not bother him because the transplant allowed him to hold his baby daughter.
The woman who had been revolted by hand transplants was sympathetic to the families of facial transplant patients and wondered if they were able to accept the new appearance of their relatives. The next visitors who came in, however, a couple with a friend in the Guinea Pig Club, were horrified by the idea that someone’s family could reject them. As the woman commented, “they are still the same person inside.”
A commonality across all the visitors today though was an aversion to war. One man repeated, “I do not want to go to war,” several times. Another remarked, “it would be better if we just didn’t have wars.” A woman explained that her nurse sister would have been interested in the medical aspects, but for her, the installation simply shows how “war causes such sadness.” She said that men of the soldiers’ age ought to be out doing things, but she imagined that there would be so many things they could no longer do with those injuries. Another visitor stated, “it doesn’t change my views, because I already disliked war, but it really shows why we shouldn’t go to war.” I tend to agree.
This has been one of the striking things about invigilating this exhibition: the sheer range of responses that span from one extreme to another. While most visitors are moved by the installation, there are plenty of other reactions, and I never know when a person walks in whether they will laugh or cry, be moved or offended, engage with the installation or disregard it. Similarly, with a mixture of medical professional and non-medical professional visitors, I don’t know until someone speaks whether I will be explaining the wounds to them or whether they will be explaining the surgeries to me.
At the same private event last night, a burns nurse came to see the exhibition. As she had first-hand experience of many of the surgical procedures, I mainly listened to her as she told me how tubed pedicles have slowly been replaced by free flap surgery and how medicine has not yet come up with something to rival the uniqueness of facial skin. Equally interestingly, however, the nurse commented that she knew of the many cases of facial injuries during the First World War, but speculated that there were probably more from recent conflicts than we hear about. She remarked on how important it is that artworks like ‘And The Band Played On…’ are displayed because disfigurement is so often overlooked. This echoes one of the reasons that Eleanor Crook made the piece and contrasts so sharply with the attitude of the selfie-taking man just an hour before.
If you haven’t yet visited the exhibition, you only have three more days to find out how you will react.
Since ‘And the Band Played On…’ opened at the Florence Nightingale Museum in November, I have had countless conversations with visitors about the horrors of war. In this blog, we have tried to show a range of responses, but it bears repeating: the great majority of visitors are deeply moved by the art installation.
One woman this afternoon was moved to tears. I was talking her and her partner through the soldiers’ wounds and treatments until she remarked that perhaps worse than the physical injuries were the emotional damages— not only from what soldiers witnessed, but from the trauma of what they did to other people. We looked at the shell-shocked Captain together and she began to cry as she commented that we’ve learnt nothing since the First World War because we’re still fighting wars. The woman apologised for being emotional, but to me, this is a natural reaction to seeing the consequences of war; it is an emotive piece.
Although less visibly affected, another woman this morning expressed a similar sentiment, that we have not learnt any lessons from wars as we still fight them. Her friend said the art installation really made her think and illustrated “the ugly face of war.” An older man later contemplated the exhibition in silence, before explaining that he had only just escaped conscription himself. While none of them cried, they certainly also found the exhibition an emotional experience.
This blog has talked a lot about people’s reactions to the exhibition and how they feel when looking upon the wounded soldiers. Today however, my attention was drawn by one particular man’s preconceived notion of the exhibition before he had even entered the room or seen the figures.
I could hear this man in the main museum gallery saying in a very sarcastic way to his wife that “you better hold my hand as I might get scared”. Then on entering the room he stopped immediately upon seeing the figures and said “oh my God”. He was completely taken aback and commented on how “dark” they are. He said he can’t be good for me to sit in here with them all day. I was really surprised at how he reacted to the exhibition considering his bravado outside of the room.
People not only react in different ways to seeing the exhibition, but the warning that they are given about it potentially being upsetting because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, also elicits a range of responses. This man clearly thought that the exhibition would have no emotional impact on him; almost mocking the warning, yet he was clearly affected and taken aback when he entered the room.
I have seen visitors have the complete opposite experience to this man. Today a woman came in with her information sheet covering her eyes and said she would only look at the books. She said she had been warned that the piece contained images of surgical procedures and that she couldn’t possibly look. However, after a few minutes in the room she put down her paper ‘blindfold’ and let out a palpable sigh of relief; “they’re not bad at all, just poor wounded men”, she said. This opens up lots of interesting questions about people’s perception of what they can handle and the reality; a dialogue that I have on a daily basis with the visitors to “And The Band Played On…”.
Today I had the pleasure of speaking to two women who stayed for over half an hour and connected deeply with the exhibition. We spoke about a whole host of subjects: McIndoe, rejection medication, the psychological state of wounded soldiers, the impact that it has on families and the work being done by surgeons today.
They also said that an interesting addition to the exhibition may be some portraits of Gillies, McIndoe and other prominent plastic surgeons. They thought this way the piece would still be a moving and poignant reminder of war but also celebrate the fantastic and innovative work of wartime surgeons.
This idea really made me think. We have countless memorials and statues to remember those who died in war but do we have the same sense of respect and awe for those who saved and nurtured the soldiers who did actually come home. In East Grinstead, where McIndoe treated so many injured RAF servicemen, they have erected a statue in memory of the great surgeon. The statue was designed by Martin Jennings, whose father was a tank commander treated by Dr McIndoe after being burned in France. Martin explained the composition of the piece: “I have represented McIndoe with a patient…who has burns to his face and hands. The pilot is turning his head back up to the sky but also towards his doctor for reassurance. McIndoe’s hands are on the younger man’s shoulders, suggesting the communication of the surgeon’s extraordinary confidence.”
For more information of the statue of McIndoe please click here.