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25 November 2021

Birth Rites Collection bids farewell to King's location

The first and only art collection dedicated to the subject of childbirth is moving on in December, after being hosted by the Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care for four years.

Collection of artwork hanging on the wall
Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection

The Birth Rites Collection, a collection of contemporary artwork dedicated to the subject of childbirth, is moving away from its King’s College London location in December after nearly four years. The collection has had a significant impact during its time at the institution, especially for the university’s midwifery students.

The collection moved to King’s in 2017, after eight years at the Midwifery School at the University of Salford. Housed across four buildings on Guy’s Campus, the collection has been on open display for staff and students walking the halls, as well as the general public. The team behind the collection have also given regular guided tours, exploring the background and significance behind each work of art. 

A wonderful collection in a powerful setting, this is one of the boldest and important installations of artwork in London.

Tour guest

It’s absolutely wonderful to see such a breadth of visual art in this setting. (…) For me, this work is a very welcome intervention in a medical setting and this is a unique opportunity for art to act as a catalyst offering different and differing views of childbirth which is so desperately needed.

Tour guest

The Department of Midwifery has established an especially important tie to the collection, as it has formed part of their core ‘Arts and Humanities’ module for several years. Midwifery students undertaking the module explore the collection through a guided tour and take part in workshops led by artists. The collection offers students the chance to discover different takes on childbirth and challenges them to consider who controls the process of birth and why.

Image courtesy of Birth Rites Collection
Image courtesy of Birth Rites Collection

“I've really enjoyed this module and feel quite inspired by some of the things we have covered. It’s been very interesting and insightful to look at midwifery and childbirth through the arts and has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on and express thoughts and feelings in a different and very meaningful way. I wasn’t sure initially how much I would benefit from this, but will now go on to use what I’ve learned and experiment with creative expression as much as possible.” – Student feedback

However, installing the collection at Guy’s did not come without a bit of controversy. A few complaints were received due to the graphic nature of some of the works, but the Birth Rites team were proactive in facing criticisms head on, offering tours and meetings with those who expressed discontent. In the end, they found that most people’s concerns were smoothed over once they became familiar with the art and the reasons behind them – with some initial critics even becoming advocates for the collection. 

We were really excited to get the Birth Rites Collection to King’s and specifically Guy’s campus, as it’s an amazing historic campus and an interdisciplinary environment. Midwifery is a minority group compared to medicine or nursing, so this was an opportunity for our colleagues to see birth in a way that it isn’t generally seen in our society. Birth today normally happens behind closed doors. When shown on TV or in films, it’s usually neat and happening behind drapes. The reality of birth is something midwives are used to, but the general public are not.

Elsa Montgomery, Senior Lecturer in Midwifery and former Head of Department of Midwifery

When the COVID pandemic hit and the university’s campuses closed, the team needed to think of ways to bring the collection to people in a safe way. Helen Knowles, Curator of the collection, who was then based in Manchester and commuted down to London, made a snap decision and asked Hermione Wiltshire, Associate Artist at Birth Rites Collection, to visit Guy’s campus and film the artworks, just moments before closing. This footage formed the basis of the collection’s virtual tours, which have been taking place over Zoom throughout the pandemic.

Helen says the collection’s shift to virtual during the pandemic was in large parts thanks to the support from King’s Operations and Estates Management team for allowing them to film at short notice, as well as some timely funding from Arts Council England.

In a way, shifting to virtual tours has been a real silver lining for the collection. It has meant we’ve been able to show the artworks to a much larger number of people, from all over the world. Being the only collection of its kind, we’ve found that we’ve had a much wider impact by offering tours and our summer school as virtual programmes.

Helen Knowles, Curator and Director of Birth Rites Collection

The collection was founded by curator and artist Helen Knowles in 2009 and comprises of photography, sculptures, paintings, artist books, prints, wallpapers, drawings, new media and film. Starting off with five commissioned works in 2009, the collection has grown to almost 90 artworks today. As the collection itself has expanded, the themes it explores have developed too – now covering not only childbirth itself, but also topics of stillbirth, abortion, motherhood, race, and equality.

Why not go on a virtual tour of the collection before it moves? Tours are free to staff and students at King’s and can be booked via EventBrite

Learn more about the Birth Rites Collection.

Creating Birth Rites: collection of contemporary art on childbirth

Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection
Image courtesy of the artist and Birth Rites Collection

In this story

Elsa Montgomery

Senior Lecturer