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Guest Blog – Pencils at the ready: exploring the arts and health archives at the Wellcome Library

Blog from Siobhan O’Connor exploring co-designing technology with people with dementia

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The humble pencil is an often-forgotten piece of stationary, left blunt and unsharpened on many researchers’ desks. I had the joy of being reacquainted with this simple, yet essential device at the Wellcome Library in central London. An “Arts and Health” archives workshop was run by the Wellcome Collection team, where pens and other inked based tools were downed and HB pencils became our arsenal.

Figure 1: Palm painting from a creative arts workshop run by Keith Kennedy

The Wellcome Library ( has an amazing collection of books, papers, drawings, photographs and other artefacts related to medical history. It is free for the public to use and is a great resource for researchers. Being invited to this workshop, allowed me to explore recently catalogued materials related to arts and health. As part of a small group of researchers from across the UK (and even one very keen PhD student all the way from Greece!), we were allowed to delve into a series of archives from the Arts for Health ( initiative at a day long workshop. I was particularly drawn to a few collections I felt I could utilise in my research with people with dementia and there were endless possibilities to incorporate them into teaching, which would benefit my nursing students.

The first collection was by Keith Kennedy who used photography and other creative methods as a form of arts therapy with people with disabilities. His practices often involved group therapeutic workshops to allow people to express their lived experiences. These took place in Middlesex Hospital and Henderson Psychiatric Hospital from the 1960s to 1980s. We could see some of the material he had collected such as photographs patients had taken and old notebooks with entries from both Keith and those who took part (some quite explicit!!). A series of intricate palm paintings (Figure 1) were particularly intriguing, as you could see different themes being explored. I furiously scribbled down points to pick up at a later date, as this might be a great way to help people with dementia and their families examine the impact the disease has on their life.

A useful element of the workshop was having the Wellcome Collection team and archivists on hand all day, as they could answer any questions we had about the artists and their work such as that by Audrey Amis. She was an artist who suffered from bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.

Figure 2: Photographs of art from Michele Angelo Petrone

Having kept detailed scrapbooks about every aspect of her life for many decades, including her mental illnesses, we started to get some insights into her thoughts and daily routines. Browsing through packets of food and notes she had made about her experiences with psychiatric institutions and doctors she began to come to life from the pages in front of us. After some frank discussions about using this sensitive material in research, it became clear that the process itself could benefit people with dementia and their carers. Documenting the everyday in such a detailed way could help stimulate memory and conversations about coping with this debilitating neurological condition.

My pencil had become decimated by the afternoon as my notepad overflowed with bullet points, hasty diagrams and nearly illegible notes. Once a replacement was at hand we continued looking at the collections, which are only a snippet of the rich resources the Wellcome Library have been gathering on the arts and health. Archived material from Michele Angelo Petrone (Figure 2) an artist with Hodgkin’s Disease, was followed by work from Rita Simon a leading arts therapist in the NHS. These captured the changing landscape in which the arts and health movement developed in the UK.

Figure 3: Some of the zines collected by the Wellcome Library

My favourite by far was the colourful and diverse ‘zine’ collection, which are self-published works of original text and images that have a small circulation (Figure 3). They can be produced by anyone, on any printed material and contain the voices of people discussing everything from infertility to mental health, sexuality and alternative therapies. What an amazing way to capture the mood and dynamism of the issues patients and carers have to deal with.

Having been immersed in these art and health collections and having time to reflect on their applicability was akin to a therapy in itself. I realised researchers need this time and space to observe and consider the wisdom that such art interventions and archives have, as they could hold the keys to enriching the lives of people with dementia. I would strongly recommend any researcher to visit the Wellcome Library in person or you can search their extensive archives online. And don’t forget that pencils should be at the ready!


Siobhán O’Connor is a Nursing Academic working in the School of Health and Social Care at Edinburgh Napier University. She is researching how the co-design process works with people with dementia and their carers and whether involving them in co-creating technology results in better digital products and services that meet their needs.

You can follow Siobhán on Twitter         

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