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Remembering Baby: Life, Loss and Post-Mortem at Surface Gallery

23 October 18 words: Adrian Shaw
photos: Adrian Shaw

In October, Surface Gallery welcomed Remembering Baby; an exhibition which sensitively explores what happens when a baby dies, from the view of a parent and medical professionals. Adrian was deeply moved...

This exhibition was a stark, moving, and at times, beautifully unexpected experience, whether one has undergone grieving for a lost child or not.

The research-team project-team, compromised of Elspeth Whitby, Kate Reed and Julie Ellis, conducted the scientific studies that supported the exhibition at the University of Sheffield.

The parents and children involved worked alongside the British Institute of Radiology artist-in-residence Hugh Turvey, with sound-artist Justin Wiggin and graphic designer Lee Simmons have, with admirable courage, found the means of expressing their dignified and profound grief and love for the lost children. 

The exhibition has two themes- loss at the start and loss at the end of life. Using the technology such as MRI scans of foetuses, the artwork explores the reasons for lack of full delivery, and even the short futures of those babies which survived for a short period, this is mixed-media portrayal of parental loss. Words fail, really, in reviewing this exhibition and strategically placed boxes of tissues are in reach to wipe away any tears, although the real grief is beyond verbal expression here. But one can see, hear and sense the lost and losing is affected through mortuary work and memorialisation practices.

The experiences and personal responses of the professionals involved were also included. Their expressions and words were spoken by excellent actors to a camera. This indicated the great tension they were under, both personally and professionally, in carrying out their painful duties and offering help and advice in such extreme circumstances of loss of offspring to both the parents and children.

The exhibition-space contained shaped boxes (some as hearts), and other displays, containing both personal objects of the babies and the grieving. They were contributed in memory or as an expression of love for their lost little-ones. Another interactive part of the exhibition included small squares of pastel-coloured cloth on which one can express grief, which will be used to assemble a ‘quilt-of-remembrance’ of the lost little lives.

What got to me personally, apart from my own remembered experience of loss of a potential child and parenthood, when I was in my twenties, was the sudden shock of seeing just how small some of these foetuses and infants were – indicated by tiny footprints, MRI scans of foetuses and lost babies. These were even more potent with the inclusion of locks of hair, tiny wristbands, and other memorabilia. It was quite evident that much care and love had gone into the whole exhibition – both in its planning and realisation.

Sometimes this was starkly expressed, one couple even included a young daughter carrying and caressing their tiny sibling as they accompanied their deceased loved-one about the family home, and even continued to include the memory of their deceased in current family discussions and celebrations. Some people might find an urge to judge this act, but not if you had actually undergone the huge loss, the hole in the middle of expected happiness, which represents the loss of a child.

Above all, I was struck how love can conquer heartbreak – and how, even without religious feeling and expression (several parents and families elected for non-religious commemorations of loss), dignity and love, and sheer courage, remained as sources of comfort and hope.

I was struck how love can conquer heartbreak

The exhibition, which will go on tour, was prefaced by media exposure, also contained the seeds of hope that MRI, used to reveal the critical damage to a foetus as well other methods, might also reveal future corrective and life-maintaining measures to enhance that hope for future generations of the unborn. It evidences how the grieving can express, in their words and actions, their healing love for the grieved.

Remembering Baby ran at Surface Gallery from Friday 12 - Saturday 20 October 2018

Remembering Baby website

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