The Amulet was a national, multi-site participatory arts project led by visual artist Marie Brett which creatively explored the idea of an Amulet as an object signifier relating to critical life-span junctures of birth and death.
The project spanned 2009 to 2013, consisting firstly of an action research phase based at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH), followed by a production phase in collaboration with bereaved parents and a national community of interest in relation to pregnancy and infant loss spanning three hospital sites. The project culminated in two gallery exhibitions of artwork titled ‘Anamnesis’.
The research phase involved approximately 40 participants from Cork University Maternity Hospital, the general hospital and the wider artistic community. These included expectant mothers, family members/visitors, staff members (CUMH directors/midwifes/neo-natal staff/teaching midwifes /bereavement & loss midwifes), members of Ballyphehane/Togher Art & Craft Initiative, members of a national support network for pregnancy loss and staff at the Northside Folklore Project. Writer Orlaith O’Sullivan and arts and wellbeing specialist Nicola Dunne also contributed to this research phase.
The production phase involved approximately 87 participants, including 10 bereaved families from five counties, 12 HSE staff from three hospitals, three members of the social and health education project, 26 Ballyphenane/Togher Art & Craft Inititaive members, 18 people from the wider artistic community and eight steering group members.
The Amulet aimed to explore conceptual themes relating to the significance of Amulets at the critical life-span junctures of birth and death, within a collaborative framework.
The artist’s interest lay in exploring ideas, reaction and influence stemming from the notion of using Amulets for varying stages of pregnancy/childbirth whilst also exploring the site of the maternity hospital as a place of significance for mothers/families and how this is or perhaps could be marked.
The research phase spanned eighteen months and was a partnership between the artist Marie Brett, the community group Ballyphehane/ Togher Art & Craft Initiative [BTACI] and Cork University Maternity Hospital [CUMH]. Together they explored the idea of the use of an Amulet in a maternity hospital context.
During the second phase of the project, the artist worked in partnership with maternity staff at three hospitals: CUMH, The Mid Western Regional Maternity Hospital in Limerick and Waterford Regional Hospital, where bereavement and loss midwives introduced the artist Marie Brett to bereaved family members, initiating an invitation to collaborate in the making of a new artwork. Bereaved parents worked with the artist to locate an Amulet or token they possessed which has significance in relation to the loss of their baby, and serves as a visible and tangible representation of something ethereal. As an object, the Amulet manifests the abstract concept of loss and the artist photographed each special item and recorded a conversation where the parent shared details about the object and its significance to them. The artist worked with ten families and the audio and visual materials gifted formed the basis for a new artwork. Located in the wider community, the midwives shadowed the process and outcome stages with the participating bereaved family members and the artist, and were subsequently involved in the project’s dissemination.
During both the research and production phases, the artist partnered and mentored community group Ballyphehane/Togher Art & Craft Initiative (BTACI). An aspect of this relationship included exploring a health context dialogue of how producing Amulets as object signifiers related to people’s emotional state and psychological intent; also how might the act of making a memorial talisman for a bereaved family member re-imagine conceptually the group’s identity as part of The Amulet project? In terms of background, the artist and community group had worked in partnership before, one project particularly exploring family narrative and associated rite of passage. BTACI members produce ceremonial items linked to rites of passage such christening gowns, rosary beads and wedding dresses and the artist Marie Brett was interested in the idea of creatively positioning this work as the act of creating Amulets.
The first phase of research in CUMH resulted in Amulets being made by parents, staff, the artist and craftspeople and used in a variety of ways including being exchanged and taken into family homes as keepsakes, being placed onto incubators as protector symbols for babies who were poorly, and also being located inside coffins with infants who had passed away. During the second phase of the project, the group continued in partnership with the artist and subsequently produced crochet layettes as a deceased baby’s first and last Amuletic robe. These layettes continue to be made and gifted to several maternity hospitals nationally. In addition, the artist worked with group members to develop the production of bespoke coffin-wraps for Waterford Regional Hospital.
The project culminated in two gallery exhibitions of artwork titled ‘Anamnesis’ with accompanying in-context events, a discursive seminar with documentary video, a witness writer text and a published book including six essays from a variety of cultural perspectives.
A series of ten audio-visual artworks were produced by the artist, and exhibited as an immersive and site specific installation which re-imagines the individual family member’s memory and loss experience as a that of a collective cultural memorial, having resonance particular to Ireland, as well as universally. The ‘Anamnesis’ audio-visual artworks were exhibited during 2013 at The Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, County Cork and at The Index Gallery, Waterford Central Library together with the WHAT Centre for Arts & Health, Waterford Regional Hospital.
A private view event of the artwork exhibition was organized by the artist for the bereaved family members who had collaborated with her and was hosted by the Sirius Arts Centre. The event was facilitated by SHEP’s Coiscéim Counselling Programme and a CUMH bereavement and loss midwife.
The project incorporated on-going evaluation and a written evaluatory report is due to be published by the Autumn of 2013.
‘There’s been huge staff interest and respect for the project and a palpable enthusiasm from staff to continue the project having identified its potential to help emotionally support bereaved parents. The spoken story of our birth is always from the perspective of other witnesses, and the Amulets made for this journey encapsulates the essence of those closest to us at that time, at a very deep level. The Amulets go beyond words which are inadequate to describe this most essential journey.’ - Cork University Hospital Arts Co-ordinator Edelle Nolan
‘The Amulet project from a CUMH perspective was a very valuable project … bringing staff and patients together to a new environment, where there was a shared learning and a respect for one another.’ - CUMH Director of Midwifery Geraldine Keohane
'While at no point does art offer itself as a cure or compensation for grief, the creative act, in this case, the documentation and sharing of the amulets in a public realm, has the potential to extend the understanding and empathy of the wider community around the experience of infant loss.' - Mary Grehan, Arts Director of Waterford Healing Arts Trust, in the perspective piece, 'The place of loss in arts and health'
Testimonials from the 'Anamnesis' exhibition:
'Thought provoking and moving. A beautiful space for such emotive artwork, I have been very moved by the integrity and honesty of the exhibition. So glad to see this sensitive subject brought to life. Beautiful, sensitive and emotive.' - Participant
'An exhibition of art that explores an immensely meaningful and worthwhile subject. Nothing like I've seen before.' - Visitor
'What an exhibition, so full of courage and integrity. Really reminded me of my brother who lived for 2 days over 45 years ago and I never saw. Thank you all for sharing and helping me honour my brother. I was 7 at the time.' - Visitor
'You captured the love and emotion that was put into my amulet. It's a fabulous tribute to my little girl and a good expression of emotion for others to hear too I think. Well done and thank you.' - Participant
'My experience of The Amulet has led me to an awareness of the indelible presence of loss within memory and of the vital importance of recognition in honouring loss and the continual presence in memory of lost lives.' - Julie Murphy, steering group member
'Thank you. One doesn't feel so alone.' - Visitor
The Amulet is extremely personal and intimate and the artist describes there being 'an inherent pivot of risk and trust'. The artist was assisted in developing a clear ethical framework for the project by the project’s advisory group, made up of key arts and health specialists, who met at regular intervals. This group consisted of bereaved parents, a HSE bereavement midwife, councillors, the artist, the assistant director of nursing and midwifery CUMH, a HSE community worker, member of BTACI and the arts coordinator of CUH. The Amulet project was further supported by The Social and Health Education Project via their Coiscéim Counselling Programme
The project has pioneered new methods of collaborative practice. The conceptual underpinning of the production phase of the project was to explore the idea of the Amulet as an object signifier of ethereal farewell, particular to pregnancy and infant loss; the physical manifestation of an abstract act of transference. The Amulet in the form of an object imbued with positive intent as a gift, or a made, or found artefact, could be located as a protecting object, a good fortune entity or a remembrance keepsake. The work sits within the frame of Ireland’s cultural heritage and has opportunity to explore how a country’s informed identity and collective social mores surrounding pregnancy and infant loss may be shifting in relation to a changing social and cultural landscape of economics, politics and spirituality.
Documentation & Dissemination
The research phase resulted in the artist publishing a book which collated a large assortment of research materials including scribed interviews, critical texts, poems, sound-bites, photography and video-clips and the book was incorporated into the Remembrance Service of CUMH.
Prior to the launch of the artwork exhibition ‘Anamnesis’, the artist organized a discursive seminar with four guest speakers, hosted by The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. This seminar gave an opportunity to reflect on and discuss The Amulet project in detail, from a variety of perspectives.
At the public launch of the artwork at the Sirius galleries, six guests spoke about the work from a variety of cultural perspectives. Accompanying the exhibition of work in Waterford, WHAT hosted a conversation about the work with four guests and a witness writer produced a creative written response.
A publication was produced to coincide with the 'Anamnesis' exhibition, containing artwork produced during the project and essays by participants, arts practitioners, project partners and cultural critics.
A documentary video of the seminar at The Crawford Art Gallery made by Epic Productions was launched in summer 2013. A radio documentary programme about the project produced by Caroline Brennan of Giant Leap Production was broadcast in April 2013 and can be listened to here.
The 'Anamnesis' dissemination phase was supported by Sirius Arts Centre County Cork, The Crawford Art Gallery Cork, Ballyphehane/Togher Commmunity Development Project, the Waterford Healing Arts Trust and Waterford Library Services.
2009 - 2013
Cork University Hospital
Cork University Maternity Hospital, The Mid-Western Regional Maternity Hospital Limerick, Waterford Regional Hospital, Ballyphehane/Togher Art & Craft Initiative (BTACI) Cork, The Social and Health Education Project (Cork/Kerry/Limerick), the Waterford Healing Arts Trust
The Arts Council’s Artist in the Community Scheme managed by Create Research & Development Award, The Arts Council’s Artist in the Community Scheme managed by Create Project Realisation Award, HSE South Cork Arts + Health Programme, Cork University Hospital Arts Committee, Waterford Healing Arts Trust
Cork, Limerick, Sligo, Waterford
Nature of Project
Collaborative/ participatory, Exhibition, Research