Through a glass, colourfully: on the arts in a London hospital

Contributed by Melania Calestani, PhD Research Associate

It is another busy Thursday in our London hospital. People go up and down the escalators. Behind the reception area, in the foyer on the ground floor, a rock and roll band is performing today. It does not feel like we are in a hospital; the atrium with pieces of art on the walls or hanging from the ceiling looks more like a shopping centre or the entrance of a museum.

Every week, on the same day, there is a different performance. Another week I sit and watch Indian classical dancing. The music fills the air and the audience is transported to a different country. Visitors, in-patients, out-patients and staff members all stop to observe the two dancers, who are thanking the Mother Earth and moving in their colourful dresses.

Not too far away from us, there is the biggest sculpture of the hospital, The Acrobat by Allen Jones (see photo above). This work was commissioned while the hospital was being built in 1993 and was installed as part of the hospital foundations. An acrobat wearing a tracksuit with green and yellow legs holds a red ball in the air with one of her feet.

I begin to think about what happens to people when they observe these performances or when they engage with visual art. Aristotle talked about catharsis, that process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions (Schaper 1968). There is an increasing evidence base that the arts can significantly improve individuals’ health and wellbeing (Sweeney 2009; Stuckley et al. 2010). It is interesting to think about how care is defined in this setting. It is not only about medical care, but it’s holistically looking at people’s needs, whether they are patients or staff members.

As one of our participants put it: ‘They [referring to the hospital/trust] cater the needs for everybody (…) helping to soothe the pain and make it easier (…) a good example is what they call the medicinema. Obviously, it caters certain people’s needs because it’s a cinema within the hospital and people who have been in the hospital for a long time, they feel they can go to the cinema and the setting is much better than in a cinema’.

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Schaper, E. (1968). Aristotle’s catharsis and aesthetic pleasure. The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), 18(71), 131-143.

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American journal of public health, 100(2), 254-263.

Sweeney, S. (2009). Art therapy: promoting wellbeing in rural and remote communities. Australasian Psychiatry, 17(sup1), S151-S154.

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