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|Faces of Battle|
|Monday, 05 November 2007|
Unseen photography and footage of Britain’s faceless war wounded will be displayed alongside contemporary uniform sculptures tracing their reconstructive plastic surgery, rehabilitation and recovery, at a groundbreaking new exhibition opening on the 10th of November at the National Army Museum.
Faces of Battle charts the stories of the men whose faces were blown away in battle in the First World War, and the pioneering medics who fought to enable them to face life again. The exhibition will focus on the work of Surgeon Harold Gillies, posted to France in 1915, who established a specialist facial surgery hospital. Initially prepared for an estimated two hundred casualties, Gillies and his team worked tirelessly to cater for the over two thousand soldiers that arrived with severe facial wounds.
Gillies’ work was revolutionary, and yet is little remembered. At the time, most field surgeons, faced with blasted faces, simply stitched together the edges of wounds to stop infection. As wounds healed and scar tissue contracted, the skin of men’s faces would become twisted and not only disfiguring, but disabling. Men returned from the horrors of the front terrified to face their loved ones. Gillies’ technique used bones and cartilage to reconstruct faces, and pioneered the extraordinary ‘tubed pedical’ method of skin grafting, in the days before skin grafts were possible. Multiple surgeries were required and the patients were kept in hospital for years at a time.
Co-curator Samantha Doty said “The impact of Gillies’ work cannot be underestimated. Contemporary society glorified its war dead but recoiled from its war wounded. In Sidcup, where the hospital was based, street benches were painted a different colour to warn locals that disfigured hospital patients might sit there. Yet for seven years after the Armistice was signed, Gillies rebuilt not only faces, but self-esteem damaged by the war. The trauma suffered by his patients was matched only by the courage they showed. But this exhibition is about remembering, not Remembrance. Some died. But most lived.”
Gillies set the pattern for most modern facial reconstruction surgery, and is known as its father. The more famous Dr McIndoe (the Guinea Pig Club) trained under Gillies, but in fact it was Gillies who treated the first burned airmen, not McIndoe.
The exhibition represents the combined activity of a diverse working partnership. Artist and co-curator Paddy Hartley first came into contact with Dr Bamji and the Gillies Archive four years ago through his research into the origins of facial reconstruction. Moved to bring the stories of Gillies’ patients to a wider public, with the aid of a major Wellcome Trust grant Hartley formed ‘Project Façade’ and began to work in response to the patient records at the archive. By tracing and collaborating with the families of Gillies’ patients, Hartley has created a series of uniform sculptures that convey personal histories interpreting the extraordinary surgery the patients endured. Samantha Doty, Head of Education at the National Army Museum, has worked with Hartley’s Project Façade team to present his sculpture alongside original Gillies Archive documents, for the first time, in the exhibition Faces of Battle.
Entry to the Faces of Battle exhibition is free, which opens on the 10th of November 2007 and is estimated to be on show for six months.
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