Uncovering the personal experience of pain

Hello, I’m Nicola and I’m one of the team working on Pain Less.

One of the things I’ve been doing is working with people from outside of the Museum. This group of adults who live with pain will give a different view on our content.

Over eight sessions they provided us with an insightful and personal perspective on our new exhibition. This significantly shaped our approach to the exhibition and the outcome of these creative workshops are on display as part of Pain Less.

So where did we start?

To start things off, we brought together several top researchers to give short talks about pain, anaesthesia and consciousness to our participants. This gave everyone the chance to find out more and talk directly to the researchers about the science behind the exhibition.

The first few sessions focused on getting to grips with the ever-changing content. With the help of our great facilitator, Lucinda Jarrett, it soon became clear that out of the three topics, pain really stood out as the most interesting and relevant to the group – in particular how pain is a very personal experience. This might seem obvious, but it was learning about the experiences of people living with chronic pain that really brought this home for us. It became an important part of the look and feel of the exhibition, which you’ll hopefully see really clearly when you come and visit.


In the sessions we explored the link between the brain and body when we feel pain – how did the group’s experiences compare with the findings of our researchers? Which research stories could they relate to?

We also needed to think about how was this going to appear within the exhibition. An open offer to do anything you want for an exhibition can be daunting… so we provided a few suggestions that we also knew we could support the group with.

After some consideration the group chose to make a film. This would explore a story or stories from the exhibition. The idea was to think about the scientific research and provide personal reflection on what the studies mean to people who live with pain every day.

The creative process

Before we could get the cameras rolling we needed a better idea of what this film was going to be, and how it would reflect the research covered in Pain Less. We recruited artists and film-makers Deborah Padfield and Helen Omand to work with the group in a series of workshops, and help shape their creative responses into a film.

The different members of the group had their own perspectives on the stories being told in the exhibition and their own ways of expressing this. They all chose some objects from the exhibition – and some that they brought themselves – and used them to create visual metaphors for what they wanted to express.

For one participant the idea of losing consciousness under anaesthesia wasn’t scary but actually a welcome relief from pain – so the anaesthesia machine was particularly interesting. Another person was fascinated by the research into using tarantula venom to relieve pain – we didn’t have the real thing at the time and so had to make do with a fake spider instead!

Once the visual metaphors had been photographed it was time to start filming. Deborah and Helen filmed the metaphors along with members of the group discussing the objects they had chosen, and the research stories told in the exhibition.

These discussions explored several perspectives on the content from the members of the group, such as the link between the brain and body, and the nerves which transmit pain, how pain can affect our mood and emotions, and how pain is a constant experience, but one that changes for various reasons. Another common theme was the individual ways in which everyone experienced pain and found their own ways to cope with it. Many participants also expressed hope that improved scientific understanding and medicine would lead to better pain relief in future.

Once the individual sequences of film were made the group got together with Deborah and Helen to watch the scenes and think about how they might link them together.

The group started off with a creative exercise using water, ink, string and sand to paint pictures that might represent links. In previous discussions, the idea of representing the link between nerves and the brain with threads, hairs and wires had come up a few times, so we looked at different ways of using this in the film. Poetry, reflections and shared thoughts from the sessions were also useful.

When the group reassembled for their final meeting, they viewed a rough-cut of the film, talked about a few edits and after some careful consideration chose a title:

Fragmented Lines: revisualising pain

All I can say now is a huge thank you to all the members of the group who dedicated their time to the sessions. The film is now installed in the exhibition and can be viewed in its own reflective space. Personally, I’ve found it inspiring to be able to meet such interesting people and I greatly appreciate the personal perspective they have given to the exhibition.

Fragmented lines: re-visualising pain.

A film co-created in workshops by adults living with pain

Ann Eastman
Sheherezade Hill
Cornelia Hörl
Patricia Macdonald
Neelan Thanabalasingam

With Deborah Padfield and Helen Omand

Facilitated by Lucinda Jarrett

In collaboration with the Science Museum

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