Inside the Gallery Part 7: Still Parents: Life After Baby Loss

Lucy Turner, Early Years Producer, and Imogen Holmes-Roe, Historic Fine Art Curator, sit with Ruby now as a part of her interview series, Inside the Gallery, which uncovers the amazing work that happens at the Whitworth and the fantastic individuals who make it. This week we discuss Still Parents, an exhibition and an engagement programme which looks at baby loss and supports and engages with parents who have experienced it.

IH= Imogen Holmes-Roe

LT= Lucy Turner

R= Ruby 

Ruby: So, Imogen and Lucy thank you very much for doing this. This new exhibition, Still Parents, it’s very unusual as it’s constituent-led, so I wanted to start with asking what you both do in the gallery and how that feeds into this sort of exhibition?

Imogen Holmes-Roe: Well, I started working at the gallery in early 2019, so I was appointed as Curator of the Historic Fine Art Collection and with that appointment I knew that the gallery was interested in working with that historic collection in a new way. So that was opening it up to new audiences and reinterpreting some of that collection. So, I suppose that’s where this project has fitted quite nicely with that ambition.

R: Fantastic, and you Lucy?

Lucy Turner: I work within the Civic Engagement and Education team and I’m the Early Years Producer, so generally in my role I work with under-5s and their parents and carers. But, the interesting thing about this project is that it still works with families, it’s just that these parents, who are new parents, they just didn’t happen to bring their babies home with them. So, for me, it felt like a really interesting new slant on the work I was already doing around families.

R: And how long have you doing that work?

LT: I’ve been working here for nine years now running lots of baby and toddler sessions, under-5s and schools work, and yes for me it was just a really nice offshoot area to start working in that it was linked to what I was already doing but very, very different.

R: So did this work start when you started working at the Whitworth, Imogen, or was it a bit later?

IH: It was just after I started, when I was sat down with the head of our team, looking at projects I might like to contribute to, this was offered to me- but there was no expectation that I would work on it. But, when I heard about it, I just thought that it sounded like an amazing opportunity for me to work in a completely different way. But I’ve always enjoyed working collaboratively and also working with learning and engagement teams on projects and it also chimed with my own personal experience, so it felt like a real gift to work on it.

R: So, were you, Lucy, the person who came up with the idea of running these workshops? And was an exhibition always a part of that?

LT: Yeah, I had personal experience of baby loss in 2016, and later returned to work and I had this seed of an idea that we could explore the idea of using art as a way of working through people’s experiences of bereavement. And it felt like quite a new and innovative idea and something I wanted to develop, so I got in touch with Manchester Sands, which is a Still Birth and Neonatal Death charity and just kind of floated the idea with them really. I just sent an email and said ‘I’ve had this idea, I’ve had this personal experience, I feel like working in an art gallery is a bit of a gift and actually, it would be really nice to share these sorts of places and art and creativity with others who have had similar experiences’. And they got back and were really enthusiastic about the idea, so we met and we chatted, then met and chatted, met and chatted for probably about a year; just talking about how the workshops might look, what sorts of people we might get, what partners we might be able to bring on board, you know, just generally how it might work. 

And we launched the workshops in October 2019 as part of Baby Loss Awareness Month, and had no idea really as to how it was going to go, we had no idea who was going to come, how many were going to come. So, we put the information out there and we were absolutely flooded with inquiries of people saying ‘I’ve never really accessed any support and this really feels like something I’d like to try’. And so, to be able to cater for the demand we had to actually double the amount of session we ran at that stage- we wanted to have between 15 and 20 people on each workshop just so it kept a bit of intimacy but that there was enough people to really have a feeling of a buzz of meeting other people that have had a similar experience. So yeah, the high demand kind of took us by surprise a little bit, because Sands were saying that these sorts of workshops take time to build, and you have to build people’s trust and it’s a new idea so perhaps it will take a while for people to catch on, but it seemed to just really touch a nerve with people and be something that they really wanted or needed.

R: You must have really tapped into something that there was a necessity for. So, Imogen, how heavily involved were you in the workshop element of it?

IH: Well I turned up for the first workshop that Lucy ran and I’ve been in every session since, so yeah we’ve just worked really collaboratively haven’t we?

LT: I think that’s what’s been so innovative and different about this project is Imogen’s involvement from the very beginning. Because actually, usually the curator would come in just before the exhibition was starting to take shape, but actually, because Imogen had been to every session, she knew the participants inside out, she knew the collections that touched a nerve and that people were drawn to, she knew the types of work that was being created; and I think that just gave a much more personal feel to the exhibition once it was up, because there was so much curatorial involvement from the start.

IH: And I think it was important for me to have a similar level of trust with the group that Lucy and Sands had as the leads on it. You know, my role has always been supporting the project, so we talked through ideas for workshop sessions, we’ve talked about artists that we thought might work really well, but I think with the group my presence in the sessions enabled them to have a level of trust that whatever we were doing with the exhibition, it was going to be respectful and truthful to the experience they wanted to be shown. So it was hugely helpful for me and it was an entirely new way of working, but it just seemed to just work well with this group.

LT: But it’s a huge investment of time, because Imogen’s been working on this project for two years now, whereas usually you’d work for about six months to a year on an exhibition like this, so I think it shows that it needs to be, for an exhibition like this, to have real personal investment- there needs to be the time investment as well, which there often isn’t and isn’t appreciated about how much time goes into the build-up.

Edward Much (1863-1944), Two People- The Lonely Ones, c.1899. Accession number: P.22685 Source: the Whitworth

R: Of course. So, you were choosing artists to discuss in the workshops and present in the exhibition, and what interested me when I first saw this exhibition was the massive interest in Edvard Munch’s The Lonely Ones, which I found really interesting as it’s a really good example of how the context of an artwork can completely change depending on who’s looking at it. Because the actual context of that artwork has very little to do with the themes we’re discussing, I mean I guess it’s about loss in a way, the loss of love and a relationship, which I guess you could say also applies to this exhibition, but it’s interesting that a work which is not directly related to the themes of this exhibition, is so poignant to the group. So, do you remember the first time people viewed it? Do you remember what that reaction was?

IH: I think it’s interesting you said that, because I think you can actually apply that to the vast majority of the works that are in the exhibition. I think there’s only a handful of them where we kind of drew out those specific links to loss of a child. The rest, I think it was a really interesting kind of experiment in what can happen when you leave some of that traditional art historical knowledge at the door and you just open a collection up just to it being intuitive and just led by your own personal experience. 

And with the Edvard Munch, we were doing a session, I think it was a November session after we started, because we were aware- it was quite obvious from the first session that a lot of the group didn’t have much experience coming to the Whitworth, and so we wanted to make them comfortable with looking, just looking at art and being comfortable with it. So we led a collections session in the study centre and I did a bit of work beforehand, which was interesting for me as I was only about six months into working at the Whitworth, so it was a really good exercise to really trawl through the collection and have that eye for the first time of looking at it. But also I think Lucy and I have always been clear that we are constituents as well with this project because of our own lived experience in the subject matter, so I was able to apply some of that as I was looking at the works and thinking well this kind of speaks to me so it might speak to other people. There was a nervousness with some of the works, I didn’t know how far at that stage I could take the group down that very emotional route, so some of the works I was quite apprehensive about, is this too much or is it too soon, but I think that’s just part of this way of working. 

So, the Munch is an obvious choice, it’s one that the Whitworth has used a lot- it’s quite accessible, you can easily find it even if you’re just looking at the Whitworth’s site and there was just something there about the fact that you had this couple, there is this distance between them and you know the sea is something that a lot of our group have really been drawn to, how temperamental it is, how it can be calming, how it can be unpredictable, and I think those elements together just for a lot of people really spoke to them so we simply just put the works out and I asked the group just to take some time looking and then just to stand next to a work that spoke to them. And if they were happy to share, brilliant, if not they didn’t have to and that just seemed like a great ice breaker, didn’t it?

LT: And a lot of them chose that particular one, didn’t they? And I think that was the point in the project- because really the concept of Still Parents, was that yes we would be making art, but it was also about art, looking at art, bringing those Whitworth collections to life. And it was that session that I remember just being reminded of the power of art and the responses that we got from the group looking at certain pieces, some pieces didn’t do anything for people and some pieces just had such strong reactions and that was one of them and the Marina Abramovic was another and I think some of the seascapes really resonated as well, but it really emphasised the power that art can have on people and the strong reactions people can have. 

Marco Anelli (photographer, 1968), Marina Abramovic (artist, 1946). Marina Abromovic (or The Drill), 2009.

I think that the Lonely Ones piece, there were two conflicting ideas around that, so one person was talking about the relationship with their partner and how they’ve been distant since their loss and how they really resonated with the Lonely ones because of that, but then somebody else, a male participant, said that actually he saw something very different, that there was a supportiveness in the piece that the male figure was giving the female figure space, but then he was there for her. So that again emphasised the different responses and reactions that you can get from these artworks, and that made us quite excited for the exhibition as we knew that might happen for visitors as well.

R: That’s quite interesting, because I think these shows can be more accessible for people in a way, more than one that relies on a background in art history. I’m interested to ask you, Imogen, as someone who is a Historical Fine Art Curator, how important do you think it is to have that background, or do you think it’s more about that gut reaction?

IH: I think both have a place and it very much depends on the context of the exhibition. I mean with this one, bringing all of that into it would have diluted what the purpose of this exhibition is about. It wasn’t about the Whitworth, it wasn’t about me as a curator, or Lucy as an engagement officer, our job was to listen to the group and to allow their experiences to be the thing that was the overriding message that people were taking away. And that’s why you have quite a different approach to interpretation with this exhibition, you know, you’ve got your usual introductory text, but that’s very focused on the topic of still birth and the project, but then the rest of the interpretation is left to the individual constituent’s voices; it’s not about them necessarily trying to bring their own art historical lens to the works, it’s about them saying how they looked at that work and this is what it made them feel and that’s the right context. I think our job as curators is to pick up on those nuances and understand when it’s right and when you know a project is about engaging a new audiences and opening up collections up to new audiences, I think that’s when these projects really shine.

R: Absolutely.

LT: And I think our role usually, as Engagement Producers, is usually to not have that historical background and we always encourage people to bring those lived experiences, to bring their own responses and reactions to artworks. And I think that really happens with this exhibition because it hasn’t got that traditional interpretation you’re not looking to the label to tell you what the artwork is about, you’ve got real people with real lived experiences putting their context on the piece which then allows you to bring your experience to that work as well.

IH: I think that’s what I really hope, and it was interesting, I think it was [Lucy’s] mother in law I was talking to when she came to the exhibition, and she was saying how interesting she found it that you could look at works that you could already be familiar with, because she’s somebody who already has a good level of understanding of art, and you can still look at those artists and those works with entirely new eyes, she just found that incredibly refreshing. And I think that’s the hope.

LT: I think that about the Peter Blake’s I Love You piece- we’ve had that on display a lot, everybody loves it, but in this context, it has so much more emotion in it and I think people have been really drawn to it and more so because of the context of baby loss. 

Peter Blake (b.1931), I Love You, c.1982. Rug made of wool and cotton. Accession number: T.1987.65. Source: the Whitworth

R: There’s definitely an emotional heft to it, more so that it usually does.

LT: And it felt like a real centre piece, or an introductory piece for the exhibition didn’t it and where it’s hung, it sort of links everything together, it sort of is the epitome of the exhibition in a way, that strength of feeling and emotion that you get from the exhibition.

R: Absolutely. What I find interesting about the exhibition in particular is the integration of people’s artworks from the group, which is of really high quality, but also the way it’s very much a part of the exhibition. It’s not in a different room, it’s not separated in any way and as someone who’s worked here for four years and knows a lot of the collection, it honestly took me a while to work out which was which, which I imagine was the point. So, was that an early idea to have that integrated or was it when you were looking at the pieces, what was the idea behind it?

LT: I think it was always our intention to have the participants work on the same level as the collection works and to really get rid of that hierarchy of artists/participants and I think as a constituent-led exhibition it was really important. But I think it was latterly when we were putting the exhibition that it was really one of the strengths of the show, that it wasn’t obvious which was which. We had a lot of conversations when we were designing the interpretation about labels and whether we differentiated, you know, we were going to have the participants to personally sign their artworks, but we made a conscious decision not to do that so that all the interpretation for all the pieces of work was exactly the same, so there was that unknown about which were artist’s works and which were participant’s works.

IH: It was definitely important that we put everything in the exhibition on a level playing field, that we wanted people to properly immerse themselves in the exhibition and not get distracted by who’s this. And I think like you said we’re fortunate that the group has produced some amazing things, but it was always important to us that we showed the process, that its process led. We don’t want workshops like that to become intimidating, that people look at it and think that I can’t do anything like that, the fact is most of our group didn’t think they could do anything like that, but because they really gave themselves wholeheartedly to the process, they produced some amazing work. So, Paul’s work which has got the elephants on it, you can see that is the epitome of process led, you can see on the same sheet where he’s working his ideas out, he’s experimenting with the technique, but just the context which it’s shown just takes it to another level. And we did curating sessions with the group, because all this happened during the pandemic so it was all online, but we had Jamboard sessions so we had people in breakout rooms and they decided the themes. We got them not to focus on their own works, but to look at look at the entire groups work and start to choose which works fitted together.

R: So, they were being empowered as curators themselves.

IH: Exactly, so it was engaging them in every single element of the exhibition. Our job was yes to pull it together and shape it, but the fundamentals of the exhibition have really been shaped by the group.

LT: And I think you can see a lot of motifs appearing around the room, so participants often brought objects that were special to them that inspired their artworks, you can see those in the cabinets, the object boxes, but you can also see those objects repeated in artworks around the room and also some of the collection pieces appearing in their own work, so it’s been a real journey of discovery, that they’re so comfortable and familiar not only with their own objects but also each other’s objects and works from the collection and there’s been such strong responses to works in the collection that they have been reappearing in their work.

IH: That’s surprised me is that there’s a confidence that’s come, a kind of short hand when they’re talking about the collection, they can talk about pieces and everybody in the group knows what they’re talking about. There isn’t that kind of ‘oh I’m not sure…’

LT: I feel that there’s a real ownership of those works and there was a couple of participants where those collection pieces have almost become their own works, that they feel that those objects belong to them because those images have been appearing in their artworks and they feel such a strong connection with them.

IH: And they’ve been part of their recovery, and it’s helping and informing and supporting the traditional bereavement services and that was always our aspiration, it was never about replacing those services that are out there, it was always about what can we do to complement. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Sunset on Wet Sand. C.1845. Source: the Whitworth.

LT: I think the main concept of Still Parents is complementing other support services, so obviously we offer a creative outlet for people’s grief and to make sense of their experiences through making and sharing and that sits alongside the traditional Sands meetings which are very much about talking, so by having that creative response and those talk based sessions running side by side it means that you’re allowing people different options of bereavement support, and I think that’s what’s so special about Still Parents, is that it’s offering something different for people, a different way of processing their grief and it’s not replacing, it’s complementing. You can go to all these different kinds of sessions or you can choose what’s best for you and it’s just giving parents options in their bereavement support, which I feel like parents often don’t have. There’s one kind of support and that’s it or no support which is the overwhelming response.

IH: Or short-term support.

R: So, what’s next for Still Parents, because the exhibition is open until next September so there’s a whole year of this space being open and I have a feeling that it’s going to be very activated by this group, so what are your next plans?

LT: Well, we are going to continue the workshops, because the intention for Still Parents was that it was always going to be ongoing, it was going to be that we were just working up to the exhibition and then just end. So the workshops will continue, the group will be continually invited to engage in the workshops but we will also, alongside the existing group, taking on new participants. So in January we will have a new group of participants, because obviously we’ve had a lot of interest and inquiries since the exhibition went up. So, the workshops will continue, the workshops will always be process based rather than the product, so that will just continue- it’s been nice to work towards an exhibition but it’s never been our full motivation for the workshops. 

We’ve got a whole engagement programme planned to run alongside the exhibition, so we want the exhibition to really be a platform to really open up and continue conversations around baby loss so we intend to run a conference which looks at the more academic research, the medical side of baby loss, using the exhibition as a platform to talk about that. 

We’re going to continue to support parents that have had babies after their loss, so we’re going to run some sensory baby sessions for their babies called Rainbow Baby, we ran a session for siblings as a part of the opening events for the exhibition and that we felt was really important part of baby loss that sometimes forgotten side of baby loss and bereavement is those siblings have lost as well, so we think it’s really interesting to work with children and look at that side of loss and using creativity to work through those experiences with children. 

We’re going to do a series of talks alongside the exhibition, we’ve had lots of charities and groups contacting us since the exhibition opened who would like to use the space for their meetings and their events, we’re very open to people using our spaces.

IH: And also supporting the wider museum sector who have become aware of the project and who are now coming to us to ask for advice on developing these kinds of projects.

LT: There’s a lot of interest of people doing similar things in their cities or venues and the other thing we’re about to launch is having a bereavement councillor in residence. So, across the road at St Mary’s there’s a bereavement councillor who uses the hospital as her base but for the next year she’s going to use the spaces at the Whitworth as her counselling sessions. So she has baby loss bereavement clients who she’ll be meeting and talking to here, so that’s a nice interesting new avenue to go down and that could be something that carries on past the exhibition but kind of the exhibition acts as a pilot to start up these new ideas. So there’s plenty of engagement for the year ahead.

R: Fantastic. I think that’s a really good place to end it, thank you so much for both of your time and what an amazing year ahead!

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