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Throughout history, nursing support workers (NSWs) have been at the heart of health and social care, but they haven’t always had the recognition they deserve. 

Today, they make up almost 40% of the clinical workforce of the NHS —with over 1.3 million delivering hands-on care across the UK, in hospitals, care homes, clinics and the community.  

Launching on 10 May, Shining a Light: A history of nursing support work is a free exhibition celebrating the crucial contribution nursing support workers make every day.

What to expect 

The latest exhibition at the RCN Library and Museum weaves together personal stories, original artwork and interesting exhibits to demonstrate how skilled support workers have always helped medical professionals to deliver quality care.

The exhibition highlights the undeniable value of nursing support work

“From Victorian mental health attendants through to the Voluntary Aid Detachments of the First World War and the diverse roles and experiences that make up the modern support workforce, the exhibition highlights the undeniable value of nursing support work,” says Antonia Harland-Lang, RCN Museum and Events Co-ordinator.

Exciting exhibits

Visitors will be able to view unique items, including a never previously displayed magazine created by a young Agatha Christie when she was a volunteer nurse. On loan from the British Psychoanalytical Society Archive, the magazine offers a vivid insight into the resilience and camaraderie of volunteer nurses during World War One. 

Agatha Christie Magazine

Above: poison was a central theme in Christie’s work, even in 1918
Credit: The British Psychoanalytical Society Archive 

You can also view a remarkable scrapbook created by Josephine Angois, a WW1 volunteer nurse (VAD). Filled with photographs, sketches, letters and travel tickets, it shows what life was like for a wartime volunteer, and how support workers have come to the aid of qualified staff in times of national emergency. 

VAD scrapbook NSW exhibition

Above: Josephine Angois’s VAD service scrapbook, 1914–1919, RCN 

Other objects on display include a newsletter written by actor and screenwriter Daniel Peacock which he produces with the residents of the care home he works in; and items from the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, the Red Cross Museum and Archives, and Barts Health NHS Trust Archives.

Visitors can also enjoy artwork created by Welsh care home residents working with their support workers and artist Alice Briggs.

Caring connections

Shining a Light was created in close collaboration with RCN member volunteers, the RCN Nursing Support Worker Committee and the RCN History of Nursing Forum. 

“NSWs are the eyes and ears of the health care team. They spend a lot of time with patients and they form real connections while providing invaluable support,” says Antonia. 

NSWs are the eyes and ears of the health care team

One NSW committee member, Catalina Cerlinca, has donated handmade paper crafts for display, which she created with patients from the acute mental health ward she works on.  

Catalina says her patients can often feel very isolated and distressed, especially when they first arrive on the ward, but they have embraced the one-on-one creative activities she gently encourages. 

Catalina paper crafts NSW exhibition

Above: NSW Catalina finds getting patients engaged in activities can have long-term benefits

“When a patient chooses to participate in an activity, they need to engage and talk to you. You begin to build up trust and create a safe space where that person can open up,” says Catalina. 

Catalina’s pieces, along with other exhibits, reflect the fundamental patient-centred care that NSWs provide, which often connects with patients on a personal level too. 

These activities teach our patients the skill of distancing themselves from what is happening in their minds

“These activities teach our patients the skill of keeping busy and distancing themselves from what is happening in their minds. For people with suicidal thoughts, being able to interrupt intrusive thoughts for a second or 2 can be enough to save a life.” 


Above: Yusuf Yousuf was London's first NSW to receive the CNO for England’s award for health care support workers.

Catalina is just one of many NSWs who've contributed to the exhibition to demonstrate how passionate they are about their work. Make time to stop at the listening pods where you can hear about the experiences of NSWs from across the UK. 

One account comes from Yusuf Yousuf, who spent 10 years as a hospital porter before becoming an NSW, and now advocates for all staff, clinical and support, regardless of their grade, to work together to improve patient care.

Further information

Shining a Light launches on Friday 10 May 2024, at 20 Cavendish Square, London, and will run until the end of October 2024. It will then travel to the RCN Scotland Learning Hub in Edinburgh, where it will run from November 2024–May 2025. 

You can visit in person or explore the exhibition online.

Don’t miss the programme of in-person, online and hybrid events which support the exhibition and explore the past, present and future of nursing support work.  

Shining a Light is free to attend. Don’t forget to check the opening hours of the RCN Library and Heritage Centre before you visit. 

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