I was invited to the Dab Hands exhibition opening, so I asked a friend along to have a look through the museum. It was well worth it, and I recommend a visit if you are anywhere near (but please check exhibition opening times before setting off).
The idea behind the Dab Hands exhibition
The idea took shape in February 2020. It was to explore and celebrate the relationship we have with our hands.
We use our hands constantly, for so many things, and most of us take their function and abilities for granted, until something happens that affects the way they work.
Accidents, illness, it can be either. Or sometimes people are born with a hand difference.
We use our hands for work, hobbies, to take care of ourselves and others, to communicate… too many things to name. So if something impedes the function of our hands, it can be a real problem. Add to that the fact that hands are very visible, and any difference from ‘the norm’ is instantly noticeable; they are very important for our identity.
How the project came to life
Lucy Burschough, artist in residence at Manchester Museum, started the Dab Hands project during the first Covid lockdown. It was funded by The National Lottery and Arts Council England.
Lucy wrote a blog on the project to keep people informed of progress.
Sammut draws his patients’ hands, creating pictures for textbooks and training modules. He has also presented many videos and webinars on hand anatomy, problems and surgery. Sammut’s drawings were the starting point for the embroideries in the project.
Lucy Burschough made several artworks – paintings of patients, and sculptures of their hands. The biggest part of the exhibition became the embroidered hands. Almost 300 volunteers embroidered a hand from kits which Lucy had made, exclusively using Sammut’s drawings.
One of the objectives was that it would help some people through the Covid lockdowns, giving them something to do and a way to be active in their field of work, even if it was tangential. The project indeed helped a lot of people through some of the Covid related isolation.
I was a volunteer
I was one of the volunteers. The main groups of volunteers were members of embroidery clubs or guilds, and health care workers such as doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and students. I came across a tweet about the project, and DM’d Lucy asking if she had a kit for Dupuytren’s (my special interest). She didn’t, but Sammut’s drawings provided her a picture, and a few weeks later the kit came through my letterbox.
My fun started! I enjoyed doing the embroidery, sharing progress pictures on a Facebook group for Dupuytren’s patients. When the embroidery was finished, I said a sad goodbye to it, parcelled it up and sent it back to Lucy.
Lucy shared pictures of the finished embroideries, the process of making a big hand modelled on her own hand and then stitching the individual embroideries onto it.
Finally a date was set for the opening of the museum, and for the opening of the Dab Hands exhibition. All embroiderers were invited.
So I asked a friend if she fancied coming along for a museum trip.
The day of the opening
Our trip there
Of course we could not just attend the Dab Hands opening, so we met up early in the afternoon to have a look around the rest of the museum exhibits first. The museum had been closed for a long time for refurbishment, and only reopened on 18 February 2023, less than three weeks before our visit. Since then it has had a large number of daily visitors, one of the very friendly members of staff told me.
Finding the museum, actually the car park, was the first challenge. We expected a blue ‘P’ sign, but there wasn’t one. So we drove past the place a few times before deciding to try a side road and see if it led to the right place, which it did.
It was a short walk from the car park to the museum entrance, in seasonal weather (snow).
Inside the museum was quite warm, warmer than I had expected. We had a coffee and a cake each first (good coffee, great cakes) as neither of us had any lunch yet.
Then we started to make our way through the newly opened museum. The Golden Mummy exhibition first (don’t forget to pre-book tickets; they are free, the booking is so not too many go in at the same time). The exhibition is interesting, the mummies and other artefacts beautiful. But I could not help but feel sad that these people had been taken away from what was meant to be their final resting place.
After the mummies, we went to the dinosaurs and fossils, and then Egypt, Sudan, archaeology, Chinese culture and South Asia. All really interesting with beautiful artefacts. One of the most impressive pieces to me was the small piece of papyrus with a few lines of the text of Homer’s Iliad on it. Seeing that suddenly made those Greek lessons from 45 years ago come to life a bit.
We had a quick look through nature, and decided to pass on the vivarium as it was getting time for my friend to go home.
I went to the cafe for a sandwich and another latte, and I enjoyed sitting down and relaxing a while after a whole afternoon walking around.
The evening started
After that, upstairs I went as the Dab Hands exhibition was on the 3rd floor. The signs were not very clear, so I walked around a while trying to find the stairs (or rather, find the other set of stairs, as the first one I found was encased in see-through material and open between the stairs, and my acrophobia would not let me step onto them.)
But I got there. The exhibition was beautiful, although maybe I was slightly biased. The big hand has been scanned by two students who have made an online app that explains the medical condition embroidered on each separate piece. The app lets you explore the model hand, and you can also search for a specific embroidery.
A great piece of work by those two students!
I didn’t last all evening, I left halfway. I was tired! After some trouble finding the exit (did I mention the lack of clear signs that indicate ‘this way for what you are planning now’) and a car drive through the snow and the motorway roadworks, I was ready for a good night’s sleep.
What’s in the future for Dab Hands?
The museum will be running a series of workshops, to teach adults the basics of several different art forms. Ticket prices are set to just cover the cost of materials.
The exhibition is open 2-4pm Monday to Saturday, and other times by appointment.
And when the exhibition finishes in Manchester Museum, on 31 July 2023, there are several hand clinics in the country who will be more than happy to host the exhibition, so it may well be coming to a location near you in the future!
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