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Time to catch our breath…

by David Wright, Curator

After two years of preparation and four busy months, our Durham exhibition draws to a close this week. Curator David Wright reflects…

It is an often-observed phenomenon among museum curators that the closing date of a temporary exhibition always seems to come round far quicker than you think. So, with just one week of the Catch Your Breath exhibition at Palace Green Library to go, this blog offers a chance to look back on some of the exhibition highlights.

Opening a new gallery can be a strange thing. Very quickly, an exhibition morphs from being something private and personal that only a small (often frantic!) working group have access to, into something which is open for everyone to see, explore and pass comment on. As soon as the opening day of the exhibition comes, the project team must step back and wait, hoping to see that all of the hard work and creative energy has been worthwhile.

This can be a hard transition to make. Sometimes it’s difficult to even properly look at an exhibition you’ve worked so closely with. There’s the incessant urge to keep everything as neat and pristine as the opening day and, even worse, the overwhelming fear of spotting a stray piece of punctuation or a spelling mistake. Gradually, these worries start to fade, as you return to reality and remember that no-one other than you would notice these things, accepting that all exhibitions must have an organic life of their own.

Ultimately, an exhibition is nothing more than what its audience makes of it, so it has been hugely enjoyable to see this gallery brought to life by a varied and interesting range of visitors. A quick scan of our comments book reveals messages left by visitors young and old, local and international. Most significant are the contrasting comments from those who had never given their breath a second thought, to those who are affected by breathing conditions day in, day out. From the peaceful and reflective weekly yoga and mindfulness classes, to the slightly more hectic school visits, Catch Your Breath has offered something for everyone.

The last few weeks of the exhibition has seen visits from local Breathe Easy groups as well as three County Durham schools specially chosen by Northern Heartlands to take part in an Arts Award qualification based around the exhibition. The thoughtful, positive comments from these two vastly different groups have been fantastic to hear, with all buying into the exhibition with tremendous enthusiasm. If you do make it to Durham for the last week of Catch Your Breath you will have the opportunity to see the beautiful works made by the Arts Award groups, proudly displayed as part of the exhibition.

Catch Your Breath Arts Award children's work
Work created by local schoolchildren as part of a Catch Your Breath inspired Arts Award

All of this has helped to reinforce and justify the key messages of the exhibition that were discussed and debated long before the opening of the gallery: our breath is unique and personal, but also collective and universal. It affects each moment of our lives and allows us to laugh, dance and sing. Our breath can signify fear and trepidation, but also hope and courage. Our breath is both a provider of, and metaphor for, life.

If you don’t manage to make it to Durham to see the exhibition before it closes, never fear. Catch Your Breath will be re-staged at Royal College of Physicians, London from 2 April – 20 September and then at Southmead Hospital, Bristol later this year. Each of these venues will take the Durham exhibition as a starting point for exploring more of the themes and ideas from the fascinating Life of Breath project.

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