Adventures in the Archives
Witness to Pain: The Migraine Art Collection

Witness to Pain: The Migraine Art Collection

“Good morning Katherine, I just wanted to let you know that we have located the Migraine Art.”

For four years, as I worked on the history of migraine, I had periodically been in touch with the team at Migraine Action, a UK-based advocacy charity for people with migraine.1 Globally, migraine affects around one in seven people, of whom two-thirds are women. It is the most common neurological disorder in the world, with symptoms including severe headache, nausea, vomiting, and sensory and visual disturbances.

I had asked Migraine Action—a small charity with limited resources—a few times about the Migraine Art Collection. This was an archive of around 600 pieces of art submitted by members of the public to four competitions during the 1980s, but the people I spoke to at Migraine Action knew nothing of its possible whereabouts. They believed that the art had possibly been dumped, apparently leaving only a few digital copies.

Then, in December 2014, a few days after a meeting to talk about how I might work with the charity, their new Marketing and Communications Officer, Rebekah, found a stack of boxes in a storage room.

When Rebekah’s email arrived, I remember shouting with disbelief in my office. I went back to the charity as soon as I could to see what they’d found and was faced with an extraordinary sight: a huge mound of paper and boxes was on the meeting room table. I remember a variety of thoughts. I was excited that I might now get to work on the book chapter that I’d long known I wanted to write. At the same time, I was daunted by the obvious need to protect the collection and ensure its long term survival. But most of all, I was entirely unprepared for the emotional effect of seeing image after image—hundreds of them—representing violent, visceral, chronic pain.

The Discovery of the Migraine Art Collection, December 2014. (Image courtesy of the author)

Witnessing Pain

The first Migraine Art Competition in 1980 was organized by the British Migraine Association (renamed Migraine Action in 1997) and sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim. Entrants were invited to draw or paint their impressions of the visual disturbance known as migraine “aura” or to illustrate the effect of migraine on their lives. The vast majority of entrants had little or no formal artistic background or training, and the responses ranged from simple sketches on cheap lined file paper to detailed works of art in oil, watercolor, collage, and airbrush. Around three-quarters of the entries were by women, and one in ten by children.

Untitled artwork, submitted to the Second Migraine Art Competition,
1982. (Image no. 302. | Migraine Action / Wellcome Library)

For me, one particular image—a painted self-portrait of a woman’s head and torso—encapsulates the collection’s significance as witness to the intense pain and disruption of migraine. Dark crimson brushstrokes streak out of the head, arrows bore into the skull, a spear enters the bloody right eye, while tears fall from the left. Vomit spills from the mouth, with the stomach and esophagus picked out in hot, painful red. To the left, a series of crossed-out shapes—bottles (of perfume, or perhaps alcohol), the sun, television, a trip to the theater—reveal the aspects of a normal life that must be avoided.

The piece reflects a genre in which artists, particularly women, have represented their pain, their difficult relationship with medicine, and their feelings about their damaged, scarred, or deteriorating bodies. There are certainly echoes of Frida Kahlo’s Broken Column (1944) here. This piece, along with so many others from the collection, provides an insight to pain, disruption, and the presence of an unwelcome force. The artworks are, as Arthur Frank says of written illness narratives, “moral acts of witness, telling truths that are too often silenced.”


The Migraine Art Collection is replete with analogies and metaphors for pain including weights, chains, lightning, flames, drills, and blades. Little people or devils hold pins, hammers, axes; they ring bells, shine torches or apply pressure with clamps. The blunt violence of the metaphors is shocking, particularly when drawn by children. An eleven-year-old boy depicted a power drill connecting his brain to his eye. Loneliness dominates children’s images, revealing how acutely aware they are of a life they are already missing.

Untitled artwork, submitted to the Third Migraine Art Competition,
1985. (Image no. 316. | Migraine Action / Wellcome Library)

Writer Joan Didion famously described migraine in terms of “a guerrilla war” with her own domestic life. This daily battle with migraine—particularly for women—is vividly portrayed in the collection. A shaking, nauseous woman holds her mouth as she cooks breakfast. Smoke billows from burning tomatoes and sausages, a saucepan boils over, the trashcan and laundry basket overflow, the dishes pile up. Surrounded by the chaos of things she needs to do, notes taped to the walls remind her of all the things she must not do. The shelf is crowded with pill boxes and medicine bottles. Such an unhappy relationship with medication is a common theme in the collection. In another self-portrait a woman sits at a table, staring into a mirror as if debating whether the benefits of the two tablets awaiting her on the checkered tablecloth outweigh their side effects.

The Future of the Collection?

In 2015, I worked with Migraine Action to develop a bid for funding from my then employer, the University of Leicester, to make the collection publicly accessible. We employed a research assistant to catalog and scan the collection and commissioned a social-enterprise design agency to create a website. The Migraine Art Collection went online in 2016. The gallery format allows anyone to download, use, and share any piece from the collection. While the closure of Migraine Action means the website is unlikely to be hosted in its current form for much longer (though it will be archived and remain publicly available in the UK Web Archive), the good news is that the entire original collection has been acquired by the Wellcome Library, ensuring its long term preservation and accessibility.

The body of work submitted to the Migraine Art competitions is a unique witness to the sensations of migraine in the body and its devastating effects on lives. While metaphors of daggers, hammers, and flashing lights have been used to describe migraine since the medieval period, the collection also shows how migraine experience is shaped by contemporary social, cultural, and medical contexts. Several images record the frightening experience of driving as an aura develops. Pneumatic drills, ruined shopping trips, traffic jams, telephones, televisions, typewriters, and lightbulbs all suggest an amplification of migraine experience in a technologically-driven postindustrial society. Perhaps most significantly of all, as we continue to investigate the causes of a disease that affects one in seven of the global population, the collection is a vivid visual reminder of how culturally, socially, and medically inadequate our treatments of migraine have been.


  1. In July 2018, Migraine Action closed, donating its remaining net assets to its sister charity, The Migraine Trust, in order to create one larger migraine charity in the UK. Return to text.

Katherine Foxhall is a social and medical historian, with a PhD from the University of Warwick (2008). She is the author of Migraine: A History, published by Johns Hopkins University Press (2019).

2 thoughts on “Witness to Pain: The Migraine Art Collection

    • Author gravatar

      This is such a wonderful piece, and the inclusion of a few samples of artwork made me hungry for more. How fantastic that Foxhall was able to preserve this invaluable collection. I hope someday these works will be available in a permanent digital exhibit, but I know this would take time and money. As a teacher of medical humanities I see power and depth in these works and as someone who experiences migraine I find them profoundly moving. Thank you, Nursing Clio!

      • Author gravatar

        Hello Mary, thank you for such a lovely comment on my article! I hope that through the Wellcome Library’s recent acquisition of the art collection we can ensure the artworks are permanently available online in the near future. I have written more about the art collection (with pictures!) in my book, and you can download the chapter (Ch. 9) for free here: All the best, Katherine.

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