Review: ‘Catch Your Breath’ at Palace Green Library

Deep breathe in…and out…in…and out

Breathing doesn’t just keep us alive, it allows us to communicate, create music, laugh and play sport. Breathing is a process we all do.

Palace Green Library, Durham

The temporary exhibition ‘Catch Your Breath‘ at Palace Green Library in Durham focuses the ‘Life of Breath’ research project led by Durham University and the University of Bristol. It is a thought-provoking and powerful exhibition, which explores how our relationship with breathing has developed over time and is an important component in understanding illness and wellbeing. Breathing plays an important role in medical history, art, literature, music and philosophy. 

The exhibition explores how the quality of our breathing and health is affected by the industrial and household use of coal and asbestos, the increasing levels of pollution and the use of tobacco. It was interesting to discover that the idea of good and bad air is not just based on modern theory, but dates back to the earliest writings on health and the causes of diseases.

Historic stethoscopes, inhalers, hyena-shaped pipes, a late 18th century book of manuscript songs are just a few of the fascinating objects on display. The wide variety of artefacts reflects the many functions breathing has, creating an information packed and insightful exhibition.

Through interactives, objects, sound and visual materials the exhibition brings together cultural ideas of breathing and the spiritual significance of breath, which is often forgotten. The exhibition is a reminder that breathing does not just keep us alive we are able to do so much more.

“Always first draw fresh breath after outbursts of vanity and complacency”

Franz Kafka

Incorporated into the central area of the exhibition is the ‘Breathing Space.’ A space for reflection, a chance to try the hands-on activities and watch the video-reel, which plays a specially commissioned film called ‘Still/Breathing’ by Matt James Smith. The film includes emotive interviews with several people who all live with conditions causing breathlessness: asthma, TB, and anxiety. Watching the film made me think about the impact it has on their life, and the stigma that surrounds the condition. It certainly was an eye-opening film about the struggles of people living with breathlessness.

Breath in visual art

Would you like to see what an image of a breath looks like on a copper plate, or how a 3D sculpture of a sound recording is formed? Jayne Wilton’s art is fascinating and visually stimulating and this is what I loved most about the exhibition. One of my favourite Wilton’s pieces on display encapsulates the full breathing cycle through blown glass forms, how cool is that?! 

Among the highlights include the commissioned artwork by Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick. Sleep Songs is a musical piece created using the artists’ breathing patterns as they slept, converting the data into a graphic and musical artwork.

Exhibition entrance
Brilliant interpretation combined with brilliant design

The exhibition design by Carolyn Gaw was just stunning! Inspiring and innovative. The partition walls were cleverly placed to guide you in the right direction through the exhibition without imposing a structured route. Gaw used calm tones of blue and warm lighting, which encouraged me to fully immerse myself into the exhibition. The words BREATH and BREATHE written on the walls followed me around the exhibition reminding me to appreciate the sensation of breathing.

Hurry, less than one month left at Palace Green Library 

The exhibition is on display at Palace Green Library until 17th March and will then travel to the Royal College of Physicians in London until 20th September and come to a close at Southmead Hospital in Bristol and end in December 2019. 

Don’t miss out on this FREE exhibition in Durham! There are also several accompanying events, including a mindfulness course, poetry workshops, chair yoga, talks, family workshops and guided tours. Keep updated by subscribing to their mailing listing at 

Facts about breathing

The world record for holding your breath is 24 minutes.

Children laugh about 300 times a day and adults laugh about 15 to 100 times a day.

If the lungs were open flat they would cover the entire size of a tennis court.

The lungs are the only organs in the human body to float on water.

The average person breathes in the equivalent of 13 pints of air every minute.

The Arab physician Ibn al-Nafis became the first person ever to describe the breathing process in 1243.

Our right lung is larger than the left lung to accommodate the heart.

Facts from the Lung Institute.

© Sophia Marion Patel

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