Porters make walks of art

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Porter Francis O'Rouke wth patient Michael Tavener

Hospitals aren’t high on the list of places for art lovers to visit but that could all be set to change for patients at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Porters know every secret passage and shortcut at the famous old hospital and a new project is helping them to become experts in the artwork along their most walked routes.

There are 100 porters working at St Thomas’ with each of them carrying out between 20 to 30 journeys a day – transporting patients, blood samples, equipment and many other items that need moving around a busy hospital.

They travel up to seven miles – around 15,000 steps – passing numerous pieces of artwork and historical artefacts along the way.

The porters recently teamed up with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, Breathe Arts Health Research and poet, Simon Mole, to curate a special artwork display along the corridors they use most.

Believed to be the first project of its kind, the Art of Portering programme aims to engage the porters with the cultural heritage of the hospital, which is over 900 years old, and provide them with talking points when escorting patients to and from their appointments.

Francis O’Rouke, a porter, said: “We know the fastest routes to the departments but many of these long corridors are not used very often by the public so they just have plain white walls.

“The Art of Portering project has brightened up our most walked routes and given us something to talk to the patients about.

“Some people are anxious about being in hospital so chatting to them about something unrelated to their illness can put them at ease. We’re often asked about the historical pieces of artwork because patients are usually fascinated with the history of the hospital.”

Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust is home to one of the largest and oldest collections of fine art and heritage in hospitals in the UK, with 4,500 artworks that date from the 1500s.
The portering team voted for their favourite pieces and chose the locations for the new displays. Each piece of artwork is accompanied by an interpretation panel from the team about why they picked it.  

Michael Tavener, 69 from Bexleyheath in south east London, was one of the first patients to see the unique display of artwork on his way to the X-ray department.

He said: “It’s a great idea. On the way to my appointment we had to wait for the lift so it was really interesting to learn about the different pieces of art. Anything that makes the place look a bit brighter can only be a good thing.”

The artworks seen across the Trust are owned, managed and cared for by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity. The Art of Portering project is part of the Charity’s work using donations to help patients, visitors and staff feel at home in the hospitals.

Imogen Gray, collection manager at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, said: “Porters are the life blood of the hospital. They connect all the departments and services and are often the first and last person a patient sees when they visit the hospital.

“This project connects the fine art and heritage of Guy’s and St Thomas’ to the portering team, enabling them to talk more confidently about the cultural heritage of the hospital as they escort patients around.”

Poet and performer Simon Mole, who led workshop sessions with the porters on behalf of Breathe Arts Health Research, said: “I was struck by the brilliant and important work the team do each day, by the subtle and instinctive ways that each of them opens up space for patients to share or vent or chat, and how they do so without pushing or prying, and all the while with an eye on the next heavy awkward door or narrow right angled corner.

“The workshop made the most of the existing skills of a brilliant team to realise the full potential of a project they have already given a lot to.”

Last updated: March 2022

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