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Breathing fellowship

We mark this month the opening of Catch Your Breath, a temporary exhibition in the Dennyson Stoddart Gallery at Palace Green Library. The project, which has been jointly led by Durham University and the University of Bristol, brings together medical history, philosophy, art, literature and music, and combines new artist commissions with objects from the Durham University collections and beyond to discover new ways of thinking about breath and breathlessness and their relationship to both illness and wellbeing.

Breath sustains and measures our actions and even our thoughts. From the time of our birth the air we breathe is a natural resource we all draw upon equally, though each of us at certain moments of our lives finds ourselves suspended in breathlessness. For an increasing number pollutants render this a lifelong condition. Our capacities to regulate our desired actions most efficiently through our breathing differ, as do our conceptions of how the act of breathing places us in the world - how far our 'atmospheres' extend. We might question then, do we really all breathe the same air as each other? Many long-used practices suggest that we need to and draw power from doing so: we intensify and transform emotional states by synchronising breathing - in prayer, pain relief, and singing.

This item, a hymn from an 18th-century tune book from the Pratt Green collection formerly belonging to Jonathan Ryle of Silver Street in Durham, guides a choir to sing together each verse in four breaths, one simple contained phrase of the text for each breath. Written by Joseph Hart (1712-1768), his hymn is popularly used at the close of meetings, the music making sustaining the fellowship until the next time.

This exhibition is funded by Wellcome Trust. For more information about the Life of Breath project, visit: lifeofbreath.org.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.

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