For some time now, we have been using essays published in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon’s 2011 volume Exhibiting Madness in Museums as a sounding board to sustain an online conversation about curatorial practice in museums of psychiatry – a topic of importance for us here at Bethlem, as plans for the relocation of its Archives & Museum and renewal of its display space continue to develop. In recent months, we have devoted particular attention to one of the volume’s most suggestive essays, that written by David Wright and Nathan Flis. Before we move on from it, we want to reflect upon on the contrast drawn there between “the ubiquitous asylum museum” and the “nuanced and balanced” displays, exampled by “the Museum of Brisbane’s Remembering Goodna exhibition in Australia in 2009”, that Wright and Flis think are more rarely achieved. They style the former “museums of madness” which seem to be “voyeuristic in their insistence that the history of madness is one of violence and trauma” and which “implicitly neglect and victimise (and even make invisible) the patient rather than empower him or her”. 1 To judge from another essay in Exhibiting Madness,2 and from a presentation on the Museum of Brisbane exhibition given to members of the UK’s Health Archives and Records Group in 2010, Remembering Goodna was indeed a sensitive and thought-provoking exhibition, employing strategies of community curation and interpretative participation to good effect. We think it is fair – and uncontroversial – to assert that the level of curatorial sophistication available within “the ubiquitous asylum museum run by volunteer staff and patients” is lower than that which can be mobilised elsewhere, and that there are traps associated with the subject matter into which an unwary curator may easily fall.
Despite having recently visited volunteer-led museums in Bristol, Wakefield, and Hamilton, Ontario (the interior of the last of which is pictured below), here at the Archives & Museum we wonder just how ‘ubiquitous’ institutions of this sort actually are, mindful as we are of colleagues in continental Europe who have deliberately crafted psychiatric museum displays which are simultaneously provocative, balanced and open-ended. The particular contrast drawn by Wright and Flis is shaped by a general contrast between museums which are adequately resourced, both professionally and financially, and those that are principally fueled by the enthusiasm of a few.
1 D. Wright and N. Flis, ‘A Grave Injustice: The Mental Hospital and Shifting Sites of Memory’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 102 and 107.
2 J. Besley and M. Finnane, ‘Remembering Goodna: Stories from a Queensland Mental Hospital’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 116-136.