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Screening the Nurse: Call to Service

December 15, 2010

By Elisabetta Babini, Toby Haggith, Rosemary Wall and Anne Marie Rafferty

‘Screening the Nurse: Call to Service’ is a collaborative project between the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery and the Imperial War Museum in London. The Museum’s collection of nursing films exceeds 130, from different wars and continents. Our collaboration combines academic expertise with public engagement.

The 150th anniversary of the School, established through fundraising in recognition of Nightingale’s work in the Crimean War, inspired a film programme on the theme of nursing and war at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) on 27 and 28 February 2010. The event focused on British nurses, including popular and less celebrated figures.

In selecting the films, Dr Rosemary Wall and Elisabetta Babini aimed at a wide geographical breadth, spanning British – and in two instances Soviet and Australian – involvement in theatres of war worldwide. The cinematic genres ranged from melodramas and recruitment films to documentaries, footage and newsreels. Biopics on Edith Cavell and Florence Nightingale were kindly loaned by the British Film Institute.

A scene from 'Red cross Pluck' (1914). Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, IWM FLM 4193

A scene from 'Red cross Pluck' (1914). Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, IWM FLM 4193

The first day was dedicated to the Crimean and World War I. A stimulating programme of short films of different genres opened the event, the silents accompanied by a film pianist, Stephen Horne. The first subject examined was the nursing martyr Edith Cavell. To follow, guest speakers Dr Christine Hallett (University of Manchester) and Professor Edgar Jones (King’s College London) introduced, respectively, films on ‘plucky nurses’ in World War I and on war neurosis.

The afternoon programme began with a documentary on Mary Seacole, The Real Angel of the Crimea (2005), introduced by Professor Elizabeth Anionwu (Thames Valley University). The heated roundtable discussion that followed included Helen Rappaport, author of a book on women in the Crimean War, Paul Kerr (London Metropolitan University), the producer and co-director of the film, and Dr Jessica Howell (King’s College London), who has published on Seacole. To conclude, Andrew Lambert (Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s) and Professor Ginette Vincendeau (Head of Film Studies at King’s) provided insights into the biopic on Nightingale, The Lady with a Lamp (1951).

On the morning of the second day, we presented films from World War II. International productions spanned Western and Eastern Fronts and diverse cinematic genres. The session included Memory of the Camps, footage on the nursing of concentration camp survivors in Bergen-Belsen (Germany).

The afternoon session focused on the 1960s to the present, including recruitment films and interviews about nursing experiences in the Falkland Islands, the Balkans, Kenya and Iraq. The last session was discussed by Major Patricia Gibson (Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps). Final commentaries on the event were headed by Professors Vincendeau and Rafferty.

Evaluations of our selection of films and speakers were generally very positive, with the programme scoring mainly fives and fours (one = poor, five = excellent) on the feedback forms. Further topics for future public screenings were suggested, and there was a view that for future events, a shorter programme of films would allow more time for discussion with the audience. The most attended session was Mary Seacole’s, with 45 people.

Toby Haggith of the IWM welcomes subject specialists to examine material from the Museum’s films and video collection. Unlike other, better-known moving image collections in the UK (such as the BFI National Film and Television Archive or the commercial newsreel collections), the IWM collection does not contain many feature films or television programmes from public broadcasters that are accessible to the general public. Much of the collection comprises mute, unedited military record film, training and propaganda films and assessment footage of trials and experiments – material that is not just inscrutable to the outsider, but is far from most people’s definition of ‘cinema’. While the curators work hard to put this footage into context, insights are enriched by experts with thorough knowledge of topics outside the IWM cinematic domain.

Not only did the event’s format and focus enable us to show a number of related films that have rarely, if ever, been shown publicly, but also speakers gave valuable context for the screenings. Major Gibson personally knew some of the video protagonists of British military operations in Macedonia, Kosovo and Kenya. Moreover, the knowledge that the speakers brought to items in the collection will help the Museum’s curators to update and enrich catalogue entries. Overall, the interdisciplinary event illustrated the great potential of the multi-stranded discourse of the medical humanities.

The proof of a successful collaboration is when it develops beyond the event, and there are already signs that ‘Screening the Nurse’ has a good ‘afterlife’. For example, the IWM has invited Edgar Jones to view other films in the collection covering battle trauma and mental fatigue, so that catalogue entries can be updated to provide a greater understanding of related items in the collections; and it is currently in discussion with Anne Marie Rafferty about further collaborations, such as in establishing a series of screenings and seminars for students of nursing and midwifery and the public. On 17 September 2010, we presented a mini version of ‘Screening the Nurse’ at the Wellcome Collection, as part of the evening all-building spectacular on nursing and midwifery, ‘Handle With Care’.

Elisabetta Babini is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies, the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, and the Centre for the Humanities and Health, King’s College London. Toby Haggith is a Film Curator at the Imperial War Museum. Rosemary Wall is a Research Fellow in the history of nursing at the Florence Nightingale School. Anne Marie Rafferty is Dean of the Florence Nightingale School.

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