Life often takes us us on divergent twists and turns. Sometimes, surprisingly, all these different paths come together to make coherent sense. My own journey has taken me to architecture, nursing, art and art history. Together, these disciplines have led me to understand the importance of humanising clinical and institutional spaces.
In 1972, Professor of Surgery Alan Clarke initiated the Dunedin Hospital art collection. He was responding to medical literature about the benefits of original art in hospitals, and to his positive personal experience of art in hospitals overseas. The Art Advisory Committee was formed, with the goal of populating the walls and corridors of Dunedin and Wakari hospitals with original artwork. Clarke believed that original art by professional artists provided the best portrayals of ‘life and nature’’.
Many years later, my unusual multidisciplinary journey would connect me to Dr. Clarke’s vision.
When I was seventeen, I accepted an architectural drafting Cadetship with the Ministry of Works and Development in Wellington. I crawled underneath buildings to locate exact positions of foundation piles, and measured doors and walls in new buildings such as the Beehive and Old Government Buildings. Back in the office the information was drawn to scale, first in pencil and then with various Rotring ink pens. A scalpel was an essential tool for scraping off ink, and the paper often bore its scars. (Helpful though it is, modern technology has diminished the tactile pleasure of drafting by hand.) I qualified with a NZ Certificate of Drafting, working with a specialist team of architects, engineers, interior designers and quantity surveyors to produce aesthetically-pleasing and functionally well-designed public buildings.
After travelling overseas, I returned to New Zealand with a new desire: to become a nurse. In 1985 I graduated with a Diploma in Nursing from Wellington Polytechnic. This was a comprehensive and rigorous course. We were taught a holistic approach to healthcare, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, evaluating physical, intellectual, emotional and social aspects of a health. As part of a move to encourage people to take a more active role in their own health care, the word ‘patient’ was replaced by ‘client’ – a word that is, in my view, de-humanising. It does not evoke a sense of the personal touch or ethic of care that is so important for people in a hospital. I remember, as a student, being one of several nurses involved in a dangerous rescue attempt. A delirious ‘client’ had climbed out the window onto a ledge, leaking catheter tube and intravenous line dangling. We clutched the ‘client’s’ pyjamas, and one brave nurse risked her own life to lure him back inside. He was a real person needing our care; he was our patient.
After raising five boys and living overseas, including in Vanuatu, where hospitals are more domestic in scale, we returned to New Zealand in 2007, and I determined to formally revisit a childhood passion for painting. At the Dunedin School of Art, under the tuition of prominent, local artists including Kushana Bush, Peter Cleverley, Michael Greaves, Clive Humphreys and Anita deSoto, I was introduced to the conceptual nature of art. Furthermore, I learned that the tactile art making process is fraught with trial and error, pain and joy, as the artist wrestles to find an acceptable and original expression of ideas.
Following art school, I pursued art theory further at the University of Otago. My MA thesis (The Dunedin Hospital Art Collection: Architecture, Space and Wellbeing), gathered all the strands of my personal journey: architecture, nursing and art. My background in drafting and being able to read architectural plans made the research task less daunting, especially when I catalogued the entire Dunedin Hospital art collection of over 2000 artworks for the Healthcare Otago Charitable Trust in 2017. The MA also opened the door to attending the 9th Annual International Arts and Health Conference at the Gallery of New South Wales in 2017. This was an exceptional experience, demonstrating a broad context for the arts in healthcare and for wellbeing. I was especially interested in the ways that memory and identity were addressed through music and theatre.
Today, as a member of the Dunedin Hospital Arts Advisory Committee, I uphold the belief that art, particularly original art, serves our community’s health and wellbeing. Art provides an essential comforting presence in clinical and institutional facilities. It speaks to memory and identity, nourishes the soul, and provides an essential humanising touch.
Christine Mulligan, MA BFA RCN NZCD (Arch), is a part-time guide at Olveston Historic Home in Dunedin, and a member of the Art Advisory Committee Dunedin Hospital.
Christine Mulligan is giving a lunchtime presentation on ‘The Dunedin Hospital Art Collection: Humanising Clinical and Institutional Spaces’ at 12.10 pm on Thursday August 16, 2018, at the Hocken Library, 90 Anzac Ave, Dunedin. Entry is free, and you are welcome to bring your lunch with you.