Quarantine boxes and personal photos

In each of these photographs I have added a photograph by the side of the box to show the personal face of tragedy. This became a more intimate way of memorialising disease and exploring loss, not the loss of the good and the great who provided cures and helped save humanity, but the sacrifices forced upon ordinary people.

Black Death and disposing of the dead
Cholera box and cholera patient
Influenza box and people wearing masks to protect themselves from infection
Smallpox box and Smallpox patient
Tuberculosis box and young children receiving treatment at a TB sanitorium
HIV box in Gay Pride colours, a disco ball and the photograph that changed the face of AIDS & HIV forever

Quarantine boxes

These latest pieces from my MEMORIALISING disease project continue to explore the forms of viruses and bacteria but this time in a different way.    I’ve called them QUARANTINE BOXES.

In these works I  put small ceramic viruses and bacteria  inside curious old boxes.  To make the works even more eye catching I have decorated them with Cyanotype printed fabric or paper. Cyanotype is the first known photographic method so suits these largely ancient diseases.

Reading from the top left hand side:

  • Black Death with a rat with a smoking gun
  • Cholera with a breathing device
  • HIV & AIDS with satirical cartoon about the crisis in Africa – and a disco glitter ball too
  • Smallpox, although you can’t see it here, ceramic virus sewn into the side panels
  • Tuberculosis with a textile and embroidered pair of lungs
  • Influenza quarantine box

Exhibition proposal

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.  

Black Death with a metal ring symbolising qurantine

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

Black Death               





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

One ceramic sculpture representing virus/bacteria: 20 cm x 10 cm

One larger ceramic work representing a bunch of viral blooms: 40 cm x 30 cm

Who saved the village of Eyam – was it Mompesson or Stanley?

If you were to read a contemporary account of Eyam villagers putting themselves into quarantine to protect others from the plague it might well be suggested that their clergyman Mompesson had lead them to this act of enormous self-sacrifice. As the village rector, Mompesson was the obvious candidate to lead the villagers, but was his role exaggerated at the expense of another local religious figure?

Related image        Mompesson

Thomas Stanley, originally rector of Eyam between 1664 to 1660 was a Puritan, had fallen out of favour with more traditional Anglicans including the Reverend Mompesson. However, as the number of plague victims grew, the two men put aside their differences, uniting to put their bold plan of isolation into action, and in doing so, saved countless lives.

Image result for silhouette vicar image old fashioned      Thomas Stanley – no image exists

Here my  sculpture of the Black Death sits outside Eyam Parish church where their plans would most likely have been communicated to the terrified local people.





A court of King Cholera

Leech’s carton in Punch (1852) shows the association of cholera with poverty. A child stands on his head on top of a rubbish heap in the left-hand corner. An old woman scavenges from the heap, another child shows off his own find, and washing flutters in the breeze overhead.


P.P.5270 volume 23, 139

Cholera was one of the most fatal diseases in the 19th century. Nausea and dizziness led to violent vomiting and diarrhoea, “with stools turning to a grey liquid until nothing emerged but water and fragments of intestinal membrane… extreme muscular cramps followed, with an insatiable desire for water”. It is estimated that 16,000 people died during the 1831-1832 epidemic.

Only working-class people appeared to suffer from cholera. Stories began to circulate that doctors were spreading the disease as an excuse for getting their hands on corpses to dissect.


Cartoon from the Wellcome Library, London.



Black death - rat with a smoking gun

From time to time we read that archaeologists have unearthed the skeletons of people who suffered from terrible diseases or, in more modern times, people who have died untimely deaths, but what of those who tried to save us from all this?

How do we remember those significant people who changed humanities’ experience of disease?  Maybe we put a bunch of flowers on their graveside or by their favourite place?

MEMORIALISING DISEASE remembers these who fought against infection for us all. Viruses and bacteria are recreated as bunches of viral blooms laid in their memory.  A single ceramic virus has also been photographed against the backdrop of significant locations or with somebody who played a significant role in this battle.

Thanks to the immunologist Matthew Helbert who helped me know my viruses from my bacteria and to Helen Elias for her inspiration.