Q&A | 'Nursing is often described as both an art and a science' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘Nursing is often described as both an art and a science’

Jane Nicol, the new nurse in residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, describes her role and how it came to be
Health And Wellbeing Medicine
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Eleanor Mills
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Jane Nicol (second from left), nurse in residence, talking to students at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
Jane Nicol (second from left), nurse in residence, talking to students at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham has hired its first ever nurse in residence.

Jane Nicol, who will continue her role as senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Nursing, is a registered nurse who has specialised in palliative and end of life care. Over the next year, Nicol will be looking at the Barber’s collection through her unique lens and developing ways of using these major works of art to inform community healthcare and enrich medical training.  

Her residency is one of four strands to the Barber Health project, which builds on the organisation’s previous experience of working in this area. The year-long programme will also take in death and dying community conversations, care home outreach and a social prescribing pilot.

The entire initiative has been made possible with a grant of £40,000 from the Art Fund’s Respond and Reimagine scheme.

What will your new role of nurse in residence at the Barber encompass?

Building on the collaborative work I have already done with the Barber, this residency will see me work with Jen Ridding, the head of public engagement, and the Barber team to develop their flagship arts and health initiative.

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There are several strands to this innovative programme: the expansion of Memento Mori, an in-gallery (and most recently digital) workshop exploring how the arts can be used to support conversations around loss, death, and dying.

Jen and I designed and delivered the first iteration of Memento Mori in 2017 and it has developed since then. At the moment the workshop forms part of the University of Birmingham’s (UoB) pre-registration nursing curricula and has been introduced to the MBChB Medicine and Surgery programme.

More widely, it has formed part of the annual BrumYODO festival and Dying Matters Week, allowing members of the public to participate. The development of outreach work with local care homes will see myself and the Barber engage care homes and work with them to develop portable or digital arts-based activities that can be used to enhance the health and wellbeing of people living and working in care homes.

This will build on work previously undertaken by UoB undergraduate nursing students as part of an elective placement, where they explored ways in which the Barber could develop arts-based workshops for people living with dementia.

Why is it important that a role like this should be introduced?

My residency has been generously funded with a grant from the Art Fund Respond and Reimagine programme. This funding programme supports museums and galleries to address challenges connected to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Coronavirus has impacted us all, as individuals, communities and as a society, with many people experiencing the death of a family member, friend or colleague. Restrictions mean that many people have not been able to participate in the rituals that help us to process our loss.

Using Memento Mori to allow people to express their beliefs and experiences has the potential to support people to find a place for their grief, a place that allows them to both reflect on, and live with, their grief.

Care homes have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with restrictions meaning residents are isolated from families and friends, and families isolated from loved ones. Our work with care homes aims to engage residents, families, carers and staff in workshops that take the Barber collection to them and encourage a shared experience.

You are also senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Nursing and a registered nurse – how will this new residency tie into your work?

Nursing is often described as both an art and a science. The science being the technical knowledge and skill, the “what” of nursing; the “art” part of nursing is then the attributes, communication skills, emotional intelligence and empathy, which is the “how” of nursing.

Of course, art and science are not only the preserve of nurses, they are core principles across all health and social care professions. In fact, the modern Hippocratic Oath says, in part: “I will remember there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug”.

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Therefore, exploring opportunities and ways in which the arts can be embedded into health and social care curricula allows us to recognise the art of our profession as being a core part of our practice.

Encouraging students to think creatively and providing them with a reflective space encourages them to consider different ways to support the health and wellbeing of patients, families and carers. Additionally, and just as importantly, we can also encourage our students to reflect on ways to support their own health and wellbeing.

How did you become interested in the healing power of art, museums and culture?

I have always taken a creative approach to my teaching, looking for different and memorable ways to engage students in topics that can be challenging. I have previously used drama to encourage students to explore aspects of palliative and end of life care, and now use film, both documentary and fiction, as the prompt for this.

For my work with the Barber, I would say it was serendipity. Jen and I happened to be in the same place, the Barber, at the right time. I was attending a lunchtime tour hosted by Jen when we stopped to discuss a painting, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Pierre Puvis De Chavannes.

While the composition of this picture and the tight frame drew me in, it was Saint John’s “acceptance” of his death that struck me most, portrayed through his facial expression and body posture, with his direct gaze engaging us with his situation.

Discussing this work with Jen led to a conversation about theories of loss, grief and bereavement, different people’s approaches to death, and how sometimes we want to “look away”. It was this conversation that formed the basis for our Memento Mori workshop, the work we have done together since and ultimately my residency.

Do you have an overarching goal that you’d like to achieve as part of this residency?

Yes, while I am a nurse in residence, I hope this role inspires and opens doors for other health and social care professionals to take on residency roles both in the arts and beyond.

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