By Antonia Harland-Lang


RCN Unmasked Poster

(Please see above link to view the poster)

On International Nurses’ Day, 12 May 2023, the RCN Library and Archive opened a new exhibition, Unmasked: Real Stories of Nursing in COVID-19. The exhibition explores the crucial role nursing staff played in caring for people during the COVID-19 pandemic and in past pandemics.

Unmasked clearly came a little time after the height of the pandemic. Indeed, it opened the month that the WHO officially declared the end of the COVID-19 global health emergency – though, as nursing staff and other healthcare workers are all too aware, COVID-19 is still with us. In fact, the exhibition drew on a number of different collecting projects that we had run at different points in time throughout the pandemic.

This article shows how we went about collecting the stories in the exhibition and how timing was crucial. It also hopes to show that a flexible and varied approach to contemporary collecting can be an effective and impactful way of preserving the lived experiences of nursing staff for the nursing historians of the future.

Collecting through peer-to-peer interviews

When COVID-19 hit, the library and archive team knew that it was important to capture not only the experiences of UK nursing staff but also their contributions at a time of national crisis. Like other heritage organisations, however, we were aware that any collecting needed to be handled with great care. Early in the pandemic, leading sector voices like the Museum Association and the Science Museum emphasised the importance of collecting with sensitivity and respect and of not doing anything that might take healthcare workers away from their frontline duties. Likewise, the RCN History of Nursing Forum decided to pause its programme of oral history interviews with RCN members. This was based on evidence that these might have a negative impact on interviewee wellbeing when the pandemic was ongoing and while members were in survival mode.

Instead, to capture nursing voices while COVID-19 was still unfolding, the team organised a series of online peer-to-peer interviews that were broadcast as live public events from November 2020 onwards. From student nurses to nursing leaders, from nursing support workers to nurses working internationally, these interviews brought together staff from a wide range of fields. Whatever their area of responsibility, they were interviewed by peers in the nursing world who were also working on the pandemic effort. Peer support is a proven method for managing traumatic situations as they occur and lessening emotional impact. Less formal than a traditional oral history format, the peer-to-peer interviews provided a supportive space for nursing staff to share their experiences while still being recorded and added to the RCN Library and Archive collection.

Feedback from audiences, including the general public as well as fellow nurses, suggested that the events provided both a way of capturing nursing experiences for posterity but also having a therapeutic and educational purpose in the present: ‘I found it useful listening to other experiences some harrowing and amazing and realise nurses etc are still not recognised for the sacrifices they make’ [feedback from one participant].

These interviews also provided an important source of first-person content for the Unmasked exhibition. They included, for example, Kevin Morley’s account of the highly personal impact of the risks of the pandemic on his personal life, which came directly out of the interview he gave in early 2021:

Having to go to work in a community that had a high risk of COVID-19, then going home where I have a vulnerable husband. Our lobby-way turned into a changing room because you would change out of your work clothes and head straight into the shower. You lived separate lives. To keep safe was a massive task in itself.

Collecting through art projects

Even after the height of the pandemic had passed, we were aware that for nursing staff and other healthcare workers, it was still very much an everyday reality of their working and personal lives. Instead, to capture nursing voices while COVID-19 was still unfolding, we ran a series of artistic projects that would provide nursing staff with safe and creative spaces to share their experiences of nursing during the pandemic.

From early 2022 to 2023, we organised online and in-person sessions led by graphic artist and facilitator, Fede Ciotti, which invited participants to express their experiences of the pandemic – something which often goes beyond words – through the art of doodle. These events included a session for RCN members affected by Long Covid and were designed to be therapeutic as well as providing impactful visual stories for the exhibition. One participant fed back that she planned to use the experience of the workshop to help with her recovery.

We also partnered with a national theatre producing studio, China Plate, which collaborated with healthcare workers to co-create a series of audio pieces based on their real-life experiences of working throughout the pandemic, available at: .

Collecting on the picket line

Perhaps a more unexpected element of the exhibition was a very practical form of contemporary collecting on the picket line in late 2022 to early 2023. The pandemic made huge demands on the nursing profession and left many feeling exhausted and demanding change. To capture this, the RCN library and archive team carried out hands-on collecting, gathering protest banners, photographs and picket-line interviews as part of the RCN’s ‘Fair pay for nursing’ campaign. We felt that these were an important part of the exhibition narrative, emphasizing the need for fair pay, respect and safe staffing in a profession that did so much at a time of national need.

Very thought provoking and poignant. I only hope that highlighting these trials and experiences will help nurses receive the pay and benefits they deserve. [Feedback from an exhibition visitor].

Collecting for the future

Unmasked places the real stories of nursing during Covid-19 gathered over the past three years alongside the experiences of nurses in past crises like the 1918 Flu pandemic. This uncovers powerful parallels in the challenges of infection control, isolation, personal risk and of course the intense emotional labour of nursing in a time of national emergency.

A particularly moving example comes from the parallel display of two items from over 100 years apart.  The first is the meticulous diary kept by the nurses who looked after the children’s author and poet, Michael Rosen, while he was seriously ill with COVID-19 in 2020. Rosen was in an induced coma for forty days, and throughout specialist nurses helped to fill in this gap by keeping a painstaking diary of his care – something which is common practice in intensive care nursing, keeping a record for both the patient themselves and their relatives.  The second belonged to nurse Beatrice Longmire and is from the First World War. Beatrice worked at Aldershot Military Isolation Hospital treating soldiers who had contracted infectious diseases on the frontline. She kept a scrapbook, and her patients covered its pages in drawings, sketches and poems.

These are both, in their own ways, extremely valuable records which preserve the lived experience of nursing staff and their patients. Deeply personal documents like these, capturing the nursing voice, can be quite rare in heritage collections. They are a reminder that when we embark on contemporary collecting, we are always thinking about the future, ensuring that voices like these are not lost next time around.

The exhibition Unmasked: Real Stories of Nursing in COVID-19 will be accessible at the RCN Scotland Learning Hub, Edinburgh, from November 2023 to April 2024.

The online exhibition is available at .

With thanks to the RCN members and other participants who shared their stories and objects for Unmasked; and to the History of Nursing Forum, staff from the RCN Library and Archive Service and across the RCN.