Exploring history of emotions in nursing

A new exhibition at the Royal College of Nursing, in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London, explores how the emotions attached to nursing, and the assumptions attached to these feelings have changed throughout history.

Who Cares? A history of Emotions in Nursing has opened at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in London and shows how during the last 150 years nursing has been shaped by ideas about class, race and gender as well as shifts in practice and politics. The exhibition has been funded by the Wellcome Trust and is a collaboration with Queen Mary’s Centre for the History of the Emotions.

Emotional themes of nursing

From concepts of religious love and faith, idealised motherhood and gendered notions of care, to the role of military discipline in nursing, the exhibition focuses on six key emotional themes: birth, death, romance, faith, war and protest.

The exhibition will ask visitors to question which, if any, emotions are necessary for good care, how important compassion really is and how long certain emotions have been attached to nurses and the health care professions.

A wide range of historical artefacts

Items from the RCN Collection will be on display, including a locket containing Florence Nightingale’s hair and her bible, alongside historical objects from lending institutions such as the Imperial War Museum and King’s College London Archives.

Central to the exhibition, is a specially commissioned stained glass artwork, created by artist Rachel Mulligan in collaboration with RCN members. The windows illustrate the nursing role in everyone’s lives, from birth to end of life. Other artefacts include personal and research-related items owned by Cicely Saunders, pioneer of end of life care, on display to the public from King’s College London Archives for the first time.

A display of charms and amulets illustrate the range of things that gave nurses hope and courage during the First World War, while Mills & Boon novels written by nurses illustrate the way romantic stereotypes changed the image of the nurse in the post war period.

Changing perceptions of nursing

Dr Sarah Chaney, Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London said: “The exhibition will take visitors not only through the emotions nurses themselves feel but also the way the perception of nursing has changed over the years.

“Nurses can experience a range of emotions every working day. Whether it is being there when a child takes their first breath, providing life-saving care on wards or in the home, or holding the hand of a patient as they pass away the emotions linked to nursing are wide-ranging.

“The exhibition also explores the expectations of feeling attached to the nursing role, which have changed considerably since the birth of Florence Nightingale, when religious faith and uncritical obedience were central.

“The exhibition will take visitors through all of these emotions and give them the opportunity to leave their own comments at the end.”

Professor Thomas Dixon, Professor of History at Queen Mary said: “It is fascinating to learn how attitudes to emotions and nursing have changed over the last two hundred years. There’s long been an association between the caring professions and supposedly feminine traits like altruism, sympathy, and compassion.

“I hope that this exhibition will help to inform public debates about the place of emotions in nursing today and help us try to escape the limitations of those kind of assumptions in the future. Men and women are equally capable of caring, as are people with a wide variety of emotional temperaments.”

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