- Strict isolation imposed to prevent spread of disease
- Detention or isolation enforced
- Place, especially a hospital, where people are detained
- Period of 40 days.
Isolation and quarantine protect the public by preventing exposed to others who have, or may have, a contagious disease. In Quarantine Boxes disparate items of ephemera and tiny ceramic sculptures of viruses and bacteria are placed inside old wooden boxes as a visual suggestion of the containment of disease – but also of coffins. The act of containing these items in boxes suggests the act of putting into isolation or quarantine. But, ultimately, the focus of this work is the act of remembrance of individuals lost to disease.
Ceramic sculptures re-imagine twelve different viruses and bacteria, ranging from Cholera, MRSA, Black Death to HIV – and more. Each set of ceramic microbes sits within its own wooden box decorated with blue cyanotype print. Each is designed to incorporate a deeper level of meaning, for example the lid of the Cholera box is decorated with a contemporary image of a breathing device; the Black Death box is decorated with a plague carrying rat and the ceramic viruses looking like boils and abscesses tumble out of the Staphylococcus box.
I went all the way to London to see the famous John Snow water pump in Soho to find that it had disappeared under a pile of new office buildings. I had worked in Broadwick Street many years ago and had walked past the John Snow pump most days not paying any attention. Now that I wanted to see it it had gone.
So, where had it gone to? I knew that Snow came from York and by a strange coincidence my daughter was living close to his original home. Getting ready to go back home one morning I asked her to Google his original address. ‘By the river. Visit it on your way to the station’ was her reply. So here is my photograph of my virus by the John Snow memorial by the York riverside – on the way to the station.
The Smallpox photo was intended to celebrate the life of a pioneer of innoculation that is far less well known than Jenner, although her work significantly pre-dates his. This is the story of Lady Mary Wortley and the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair, London where I turned up during a heatwave. This imposing place has many famous parishioners including:
John Wilkes, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Garret Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington, and his wife (parents to the Duke of Wellington), Florence Nightingale, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bishop Charles Gore. To name but a few.
The staff had been helpful in allowing me to photograph my ceramics here, but were oddly cool on the morning I turned up, although we were experiencing a heatwave. I asked if I could take an image of my ceramic virus by Lady Mary’s Tomb, but were told in no uncertain terms that she was under the new Training Room. So, no photograph was possible. Instead, I took this admirably dull pic of the jug of ceramic Smallpox in the main body of the chapel.
I booked a meeting with the efficient PR Manager at the Terrence Higgins Trust in King’s Cross London. I turned up with my ceramic HIV and camera and was shown to the meeting room where I took my official Terrence Higgins pic. The famous charity was originally called the Terry Higgins Trust after one of the first people in the UK known to have died from the AIDS virus, which had only been identified the previous year. But this wasn’t really what I wanted.
‘Most of the people I ever knew are now dead, so you can take my photograph. Let’s do this for the cause.’
I had earlier been talking to the volunteer receptionist and as walked through the Reception area to leave the building I saw him again. This was the photo I wanted. I asked him first and he considered this very thoughtfully.
Eyam Plague Village in Derbyshire is where I started my Memorialising Disease adventure. I started off at the pretty Parish Church once home to the famous Rector Mompesson who created a quarantine system to stop the villagers from infecting the wider community.
I had heard that there was an even more interesting place to visit outside the village. On a quiet hillside there is a tiny family cemetery where all the members of one family are buried. The mother, Mrs Hancock, buried all her family here, all her young children and her husband, and moved away untouched by the disease to start a new life in another village. Her strength cannot be underestimated and she is the real hero of the Black Death epidemic in Eyam.
I turned up to the site of the old Medical Research Council in North London ceramic virus and camera in hand. I’d been looking this place up on Google and found much to my interest that it had been used as a backdrop to the film Batman Returns.
I jumped off the bus expecting to see this but instead was a partly demolished building. Undeterred I walked through the security gates. I was soon stopped by a site foreman in a yellow jacket.
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘It’s a long story’. I showed him my ceramic virus, but he didn’t look convinced and sent me to the Site Manager’s Office in a rickety looking outbuilding. I walked into a room of surveyors, and the site manager, all waiting for the demolition of the old MRC building to commence so they could start building new homes for North London. ‘What do you think you’re doing’?
Once more I told the story about my memorialising disease project and showed him the virus to a sea of largely blank faces, then one young man piped up and said ‘I had influenza once. It was the most horrible thing I have been through.’ And with those words I was allowed to take my photograph.
Taking a ceramic Tuberculosis virus through Belfast airport security was an oddly tense experience. I felt sure that I would be taken aside and strip searched, but ceramic doesn’t show up on a scanner so I got through.
The morning that I planned to take a photograph of my TB virus outside the old Belfast TB Institute on the infamous Falls Road, once a centre of fighting during the Troubles, it was cold, wet and windy. This was the first time I had taken a photograph during this project, so I was feeling a bit cautious anyway.
Placing my little virus in front of the TB Institute I noticed a van load of workmen looking at me with curiousity. Paying little attention to them I started taking my photographs. This took ages because it kept falling over in the wind. Then I noticed another van load of workmen turning up to look at me. Was my ceramic virus that interesting, or was I just looking too odd for the once fractious Falls Road? After all this effort, the virus almost disappeared from view in the photograph, and I photoshopped this version instead.
The sculptures and images shown here in MEMORIALISING DISEASE are available as an exhibition. Please contact the artist Helen Birnbaum through this blog for more information.
The exhibition MEMORIALISING DISEASE celebrates pioneering individuals who lead the way in medical science, sometimes without even realising the impact of their work. Six deadly viruses and bacteria, recreated in ceramic as bunches of viral blooms laid in the memory of the individual who first found the way to a cure. The artist’s way of laying flowers by the graveside is to take ceramics of single deadly viruses or bacteria back to places of significance in the history of developing vaccines. Single ceramic viruses or bacteria are photographed by their own significant location, or with somebody who played an important role in this battle. Images of famous people who also suffered are included.
Cholera – display each for the Cholera pioneers Wilkinson and Snow
Images of the exhibits and the exhibitions photographs are also provided as Jpegs with the email that accompanies this proposal. The Artist’s Biography is also provided.
Copyright for images not taken by the artist will be sought for images used other than those already stated as Wellcome Library copyright.
Each exhibition consists of:
Six individual canvas mounted photographs: 30 cm x 20 cm
- contemporary image of places of significance
- contemporary image of person of significance
- ceramic sculpture in historic site
- contemporary medical photographs and/or health education poster
- microscopic image of virus or bacteria
- descriptions of each image