Upsides and downsides of drug-based medicine explored in new RCGP art exhibition

Publication date: 28 November 2018

Thousands of pills and medication cases exploring advances of modern medicine and changes in the management of common health conditions, as well as the burden of pill-taking and dangers of over-medication, will be on display at 30 Euston Square as part of the latest art exhibition from the Royal College of General Practitioners.

What Once Was Imagined (WOWI), named after a quote by William Blake, is the creation of long-time collaborators, textile artist Susie Freeman and Bristol-based GP, Dr Liz Lee – together known as Pharmacopoeia.

WOWI will feature 31 installations, many on display for the very first time and some created especially for the exhibition.

Each piece explores a different health issue, with some works relating to specific patients: Charlie and Lucy, for example, considers the latest gene therapy being used to treat cystic fibrosis, while Miss Essex is a giant handbag adorned with all the pills one woman hoarded during treatment for her mental health.

Many pieces are constructed using real medication and medical devices. For example, Larking About, a handbag decorated with long-acting reversible contraceptives known as LARCS, looks at changing trends in recommended contraception while others, such as Feast, a coat made from the packaging of all the food eaten on Christmas Day, addresses a culture of excess and lifestyle habits that can contribute to long-term health conditions.

The new pieces join two that are part of the RCGP's permanent collection, and already on display at 30 Euston Square: Jubilee, a wedding dress made of the number of contraceptive pills a woman could take during her married life, and Armour, made with the empty packets from medicines one of Dr Lee's patients took in the last five years of his life.

Some key pieces in the exhibition include:

  • Sonia: a cascading silver muslin coat covered in three years' worth of lupus medication packets. Lupus, an autoimmune disease once considered untreatable, attacks the body's immune system causing multi-organ failure: "taking so many pills is a burden, but it's saving Sonia's life,” says Dr Lee;
  • Steve's Scarf, is made from pills prescribed by Dr Lee to help manage her patient Steve's heart disease, arthritis and diabetes – a stark reminder of the UK-wide rise in patients living with multiple, chronic conditions as people live longer;
  • Wave: a depiction of Freeman's own experience of depression - a delicate stretch of blue fabric decorated with the packets of her own medication: "for some people it presents as 'black dog' but for me it was a deep blue," she explains;
  • Bristol Silver: a waterfall of pill packets for common conditions and chronic disease management, collected from one Bristol pharmacy over the course of a month;
  • WOWI flowers: a series of works depicting colourful flowers made from pills to treat myriad conditions from indigestion to tuberculosis.

Using an analogy of her own father to explain the concept of WOWI, Dr Lee, said: "My father, Dr Alan Baskerville Lee, was one of the first College members, and I have vivid childhood memories of him endlessly taking indigestion tablets.

"In the 1980s he tested positive for helicobacter; a bacterium associated with stomach ulcers. He took a one-week course of triple therapy: amoxicillin, metronidazole and omeprazole and his indigestion was cured.

"That's an extraordinary example of medical progress and how it has transformed the miserable symptom of indigestion for many millions of people."

On the other hand, Dr Lee acknowledges the downside of medication: "It can be a burden. I take statins and can't bear it, although I know it's for a reason. Every evening when I take the tablets it makes me feel old, it's a reminder of my mortality.

"GPs are acutely aware that we must be cautious about the medications our patients take. There is an important conversation to be had, and our patients need to be a part of it, about alternatives to medication, as well as what can be done to prevent people becoming sick in the first place."

Freeman added: "We often hear about how bad pills are for us, but modern medicine has worked wonders for millions of people and is the reason why so many of us are still here today.

"Many of the conditions showcased in our exhibition were once a death sentence, but now, thanks to these tiny tablets, people are living healthier and longer than ever once imagined."

Professor Mayur Lakhani, President of the Royal College of GPs, said: "It's an absolute honour to host WOWI at 30 Euston Square, the home of general practice and the headquarters of the RCGP.

"Pharmacopoeia is a unique blend of art and medicine, and WOWI explores several pertinent issues for general practice.

"It celebrates advances in medical research that mean our patients can live longer, and diseases that were once seen as a death sentence are now treatable. But it also explores emerging challenges facing medicine, such as overdiagnosis, and asks important questions such as 'are we simply prescribing too many pills?'

WOWI will be showing at the College from November 28 to May 2019 and is free to visit.

Further Information

RCGP Press office: 020 3188 7633/7574/7575
Out of hours: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editor

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 52,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.

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