Catch your breath

2 Apr 2019 – 20 Sep 2019

Event times

9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday only
Open late to 8pm on the first Thursday of the month
Please see website for details of special opening event and additional closure days

Cost of entry

Free: No advance booking required

Royal College of Physicians Museum

London, United Kingdom


Travel Information

  • Tube: Great Portland Street

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An exhibition mapping the unique role of respiration in human life and culture.


Breathing is so much more than simply biology. From babies’ first cries to our final dying gasps, breath is our constant companion on the journey through life.

This new exhibition draws on art, philosophy, anthropology, medicine, history and literature to demonstrate the unique role of respiration in human life and culture.

Combining research from the ‘Life of Breath’ project led by the universities of Durham and Bristol with contemporary artworks, and alongside objects from the Royal College of Physicians’ amazing 500-year old collections, these new displays vividly convey how breathing is not simply a bodily function, but a force that allows us to speak, laugh and sing.

In the UK today one in five people has breathing difficulties or respiratory illness. In fact, respiratory disease is the third biggest cause of death in the country. Yet, despite this startling reality, to many people breathlessness as a condition is – like the air - invisible.

Seeking to break through this silence and stigma, the exhibition brings together the voices of patients and clinicians through time, speaking to the vital importance of breath itself and the atmosphere we all share.

From an Italian Renaissance Bible to a Victorian edition of Charles Dickens’ classic novel ‘Bleak House’. An 18th century medicine jar that once contained ‘dried fox lungs’ to a 21st century cyclist’s

breathing masks. From one of the earliest ever stethoscopes to the moving and graphic account of a young man caring for his father in the final stages of illness. A pipe of peace to an advertisement for ‘asthma cigarettes’. The incredibly diverse objects on show relate how breath can contain profound social and spiritual meaning, as well as being a marker of both health and illness.

Occasionally harrowing, often hopeful, never less than intriguing and frequently inspiring ‘Catch your breath’ reflects on the ways in which we experience breathing and breathlessness, how doctors have diagnosed and treated the diseases which cause distress, and how artists and writers have sought to capture this most fundamental of human actions.

The exhibition seeks to raise our consciousness of breath and breathlessness, to tackle the stigma that surrounds breathing problems and place this universal act - that defines human life and yet so often goes unnoticed by so many – in the forefront of our minds.

The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of events and late openings for more details visit the website at https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/event/catch-your-breath


Matthew Wood

Life of Breath

Sarah Backhouse

Exhibiting artists

Paul Gent

Jayne Wilton

Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick


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