Charity Evening Follow Up Report
LOOK AT ME NOW
I realise that I was extremely fortunate to receive financial support through my sixth form years (1989-1991) and to be given the opportunity to participate in the Tall Ships Races aboard STS Sir Winston Churchill in what was, to put it mildly, a life-affirming experience. The pleasure was marred, however, by lingering doubts as to the hidden source of this beneficence. We had only the school's word that the funder's aims were worthy and beyond reproach and that they had not, for example, earned their money through controversial, perhaps even unethical activities.
Now that we can state with some firmness that the previous decision of the Rank Foundation's trustees to maintain anonymity was a wrong call (the admission of which is inherent in the reversal of that decision in the mid 2000s), those of us who received fellowships in that previous era faced a different dilemma. What were we to do in response to a Foundation which, with the potentially off-putting zeal of a religious convert, now seemed overly desperate to know us, to network and socialise with us and, in the virtual world, to sign us up to to its Facebook group? For whom might this provide the principal benefit?
Reading the published aims of the Foundation it occurred to me that the trustees would have due cause to be pleased with the way my subsequent life had turned out, in blissful ignorance of the Foundation's contribution. I was myself a committee member and trustee of more than one charity, as well as an employee of another. I had worked on a lottery-funded educational project. I was a primary school governor, a parochial church councillor, a Licensed Reader within the CofE, a volunteer webmaster for three separate sites, a CPD mentor for the Museums Association, a fundraising campaigner for the NHS and a regular volunteer in practical nature conservation projects...yes I was willing, literally, to get my hands dirty for the sake of improving the community environment. Why would I be interested in some other body's networking evening? Well, the free wine and nibbles did prove to be a certain incentive.
In the end it was just one of those chance encounters. I met James Partridge from the Changing Faces charity which raises awareness and campaigns on behalf of people with facial disfigurements. As it happened I was born with a congenital facial deformity, the extent of which is, today, camouflaged but not entirely concealed by modern prosthetics, though this hadn't always been the case and my mouth still opens crookedly as soon as I start to speak. My condition hadn't actually held me back, either educationally, socially or professionally but that too was perhaps something about which I should judge myself to have been particularly lucky.
So it was not so much because of my personal circumstances that I was so interested to meet James. Rather I had developed a professional and academic expertise in the history of facial prosthetics, having worked for a Wellcome-funded university History of Medicine Unit, an historic dental collection in Manchester and, for the last 12 years, the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists. Not many people realise that until very recently it was commonplace for ophthalmic opticians (optometrists) to be trained in the manufacture and supply of artificial eyes. Many remain involved, of course, in the dispensing of cosmetic contact lenses for the purposes of concealing ocular disease and disfigurement. The British Optical Association itself was behind pioneering work to supply home-produced ocular prosthetics for military casualties of the First world War. Examples of all of these products, their associated accessories and the equipment necessary to fabricate them are to be found in the museum collection that I curate. I suggested to James that he should visit the museum for a guided tour. All visits take this form and, as such, it could be said that I am the 'face' of historic optometry. Certainly it is to my employer's credit that it is prepared to employ someone with an appearance and medical history such as mine in a public-facing role. When James duly came on his tour it became apparent that there might be ways we could collaborate to mutual benefit and I have been invited to consider becoming one of the charity's 'face equality' ambassadors. At this juncture I cannot say whether I will have either the time or inclination to do so (when faced with the need to juggle my many other activities), but it appears to be a prospect holding out much promise and, if so, the Rank Foundation will have achieved another success from which it can derive public satisfaction.
Neil Handley is a professional historian of science and medicine and has been curator of the BOA Museum since 1998. (http://www.college-optometrists.org/museum). He is currently busy writing a book on 'Cult Eyewear'.