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Case study: Facing Out at Manchester Science Festival

Living with a facial disfigurement can be incredibly socially isolating. Facing Out is a two-year project that explores the impact of acquired facial disfigurement from head, face and neck cancers and their treatments.

One component of this project has been a two-day event hosted at the Whitworth Art Gallery as part of the 2017 Manchester Science Festival to bring people with facial cancer together and explore how the arts can help the healing process. The event ran over two days, with each focusing on different themes and activities.

Learning facial anatomy

Funding from the Engaging Our Communities initiative made it possible to bring in renowned sculptor Eleanor Crook on the first day. She introduced participants to the anatomy of the face through creating wax sculptures of the skull, learning the names and functions of the major facial muscles as they worked.‌

Eleanor also brought models of the early reconstruction techniques developed by Sir Harold Gillies at Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup. His patients included World War I soldiers with facial injuries, most of which were caused by shrapnel.

Sir Harold used novel experimental surgical techniques to treat them, and Eleanor created models based on black and white photographs from that time. The models show the various stages of pioneering forehead skin flap operations, a technique that is still used today and has been experienced by one of the portrait subjects for Facing Out.

The power of art

The second day brought people with facial cancer together with doctors, specialists, former patients, medical students and arts for health practitioners for discussions on living with an altered appearance, and how engaging in art and culture can help people heal well following an illness.

Artist Lucy Burscough discussed her practice of using art as a medium to explore elements of biomedical science, and what it means to live with an altered or disfigured appearance.

Lucy is also interested in how artists scrutinise portrait subjects, as well as the gaze of the painted subject to the viewer and the act of viewing of an artwork. She wants to see how these actions are subverted when the subject has a facial disfigurement that people would feel that they should not stare at out of politeness and sympathy.

The project will see Lucy create paintings in residence at the Maggie's Centre Manchester, The Christie Hospital and Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, which will then be exhibited at the Whitworth Art Gallery in 2019.

Commenting on the benefits of the event, she said: "The event uses art as a way of developing conversation between patients and staff, and encourages people to develop a social network with others who can understand."

Working together to beat discrimination

Another part of the Facing Out event saw Anne-Marie Martindale, a social anthropologist whose doctoral research delved into discrimination against people with facial disfigurements and addressed the impacts of disfigurement as portrayed in popular culture.

She explained that the event was a great opportunity for interdisciplinary work. "It's important to bring anthropologists, artists, psychological workers and members of the public together to tackle discrimination against people with facial disfigurements, as all of us need to think of solutions," she said.