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Define the topic

Step one to create a new exhibition: define the topic.

Defining the topic is tricky. We started with anaesthesia, pain and consciousness – but that’s a huge area that spans a massive amount of research. It could fill a whole museum! We need to narrow it down, and pick the stories that grab the attention of our visitors and cover the very latest ground-breaking research.

So the first step is to research these topics. We partnered up with Andrew Morley, a consultant anaesthetist from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital who, as part of this project, created a network of experts: scientists and researchers working at the cutting edge of research in pain, consciousness and anaesthesia.

With Andrew’s help we narrowed down this network to just over 60 leading experts. But this is still way too many research stories to fit into one exhibition. How do we select what to keep and what to leave out?

We turn to our two participatory groups: Year 9 students from Langley Academy, and a group of adult chronic pain sufferers. A handful of our leading experts came to meet the groups and to explain their research.

Of the three topics, ‘pain’ stands out as the most interesting for both Langley Academy and our adult group. How mood and emotion affect how we feel pain, the line between pleasure and pain, how we measure pain, and the emotional and psychological aspects of pain were the areas they engaged with most. Consciousness also prompted some lively discussion; do we really feel no pain when we’re unconscious, or do we simply not remember it?

The next step is probably the most challenging – to combine the new with the interesting to feature unforgettable stories that are newsworthy enough to entice our visitors to engage with the exhibition.

The ageing population is a massive issue that isn’t going to go away. Will new drugs be able to offer painless ageing? What are the implications of the mind-boggling, often pricey and potentially dangerous cocktails of drugs people take to overcome pain? Are we in danger of become addicted to pain medication? One in five people suffer with chronic pain. What about global medicine; how do those in developing countries cope without the expensive drugs?

The focus of the exhibition comes out of the following…

In the UK, on average we take 373 painkillers each year. They can be addictive or have side effects, so taking them isn’t great. But will the current research provide an alternative?

Our groups were fascinated with the idea of how personal pain is, how much it is governed by our mood, emotion and psychology, and why we all experience pain differently. How does the link between the brain and body influence the pain you feel? Will this understanding lead to a pain-free future?

Our experts and groups and some amazing individuals will help us to tell stories about this mind–body connection in our Pain Less exhibition.

Suzy’s loss…

A lot of great stories have to be thrown out when we define the topic of the exhibition. I asked Suzy Antoniw, the Head of Content, which was her favourite story that was lost – she had become very attached to some!

‘Did you know chilli can help numb pain? I didn’t until we started to research new pain treatments – apparently it’s very good at numbing painful nerve endings. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to feature it as a main content section because, while the molecule involved is very effective in the body, it has strong side effects in the brain. Our exhibition is all about how understanding the mind–body link is leading to new treatments – but the research in this area hasn’t quite managed to solve this mind/body problem yet. You never know, though, I may try and pop it back in when we write the in-depth content.’

So we now know what stories we want to tell. Hurray! Believe me, that was NOT a painless process (pun definitely intended). Next we need to get our hands on some great objects to bring the stories to life.