#UpsideDownHistory Part Two: National Health Service
Instagram Residency winner Marsha Pearce blogs about curating the second series of images for the British Council “Americas IN Britain” Art Project
With my use of work by Jamaican poet Louise Bennett-Coverley – specifically her poem “Colonisation in Reverse” – as a curatorial framework for the 2018 Americas IN Britain Caribbean Edition project, I could not help having the strength of her perspective and her impact on the arts at the forefront of my mind. I wanted, therefore, to focus on women and their contributions as a way of marking the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS was launched on July 5, 1948, in Britain and is considered a major social reform in the wake of World War II. It was founded on the principle that health care would be free at the point of access. Yet, its nascent stage was plagued by staff shortages. Looking back at the early years of the NHS in the post-war context, Linda Ali explains “men were reluctant to work long hours, in poor conditions…Single women, with their newfound freedom, were being more selective about their career choices, opting for occupations such as secretaries and journalists.” The UK, therefore, sought health workers beyond its shores. In his article for The Guardian, Patrick Butler observes the history of the NHS as being intertwined with a history of migration. He writes: “The Caribbean was a primary source of nurses. As early as 1949, the health and labour ministries launched recruitment campaigns that resulted in thousands of nurses arriving in Britain and being dispersed to hospitals all over the UK.” The tremendous role played by Caribbean women in the NHS is captured in such projects as the BBC documentary Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved the NHS and Ann Kramer’s book Many Rivers to Cross: The History of the Caribbean Contribution to the NHS.
Labour deficits continue to affect the NHS in the twenty-first century. It is reported that increasing workloads and government pay restraint policies are the cause of nurses and midwives leaving their posts. The recently announced Jamaican Nurse Recruitment “earn, learn, return” partnership is expected to increase the NHS workforce. This solution again highlights the Caribbean as a shaping force in British society. This knowledge, coupled with the latest NHS labour statistics: women make up over three-quarters of all NHS staff but are still in the minority in senior roles, reinforced my interest in curating a series that gave attention to women in the health service.
In discussions with Louise Stewart and Clare Freestone, curators at the National Portrait Gallery London (NPG) and my collaborators for the Americas IN Britain project, I raised the subject of the NPG’s acquisitions policy. I wanted to feature Caribbean women in the NHS but the NPG Collection yielded little in this regard. The NPG’s acquisition policy states:
The principle for the inclusion of a portrait in the Collection is that a person represented should have made, or be making, a substantial contribution to British history or culture. The subject of a portrait acquired for the Collection must either be important in his or her field, be a person whose achievements, influence and reputation set him or her apart as an individual of public interest, or illuminate British history and culture in a significant way.
This policy has meant a focus on individual rather than collective achievement and an outcome of the policy’s scope has been the exclusion of portraits of everyday people. Additionally, Louise noted, “that for much of history most non-elite people (and indeed, non-white people and women) were not the subject of portraits.” She indicated that there are ongoing conversations at the NPG about how their collecting strategy can reflect the varied nature of achievement in Britain, as well as how the Gallery can represent what she refers to as “missing sitters,” as part of its sustained commitment to cultural diversity. This was an important conversation for me as I reflected on issues of representation, focal points in collection efforts and silences or blind spots in history.
Our search in the NPG archive led us to a photograph of a Caribbean woman working in the NHS: Barbados-born Nola Ishmael. She is the first black director of nursing. In 2004 she won the Wainwright Trust Award for her work on equal opportunities in the NHS. Along with her portrait, we selected images of key British-born women: Beatrice Webb, Sheila Kitzinger, and Claire Rayner. Webb’s Minority Report on the Poor Law informed the founding of the NHS. Kitzinger was a pioneer of natural childbirth. She developed the concept of a birth plan, which is used by the NHS today. Rayner was a patients’ rights campaigner and a nurse in the NHS. Before her passing in 2010, she said to tell the then British Prime Minister that if he mishandled her “beloved NHS” she would return to haunt him.
I then put these images in dialogue with my pick of contemporary portraits by Caribbean artists. I chose work from Andrea Chung’s Midwives and Crowning series, and photographs by Stephan Hornsey. In Chung’s collages, she connects traditional medicine with maternity care. She also depicts the uterus as a crown. She presents it as a symbol of knowledge carried from one generation of women to the next. In contrast, Hornsey’s images document clinic visits and behind-the-scenes hospital activity on the island of St. Vincent.