(continued from previous post)
Last month, we considered the application of the term “voyeurism” to museums of mental health. In further exploring this idea, it is interesting to note that the very term originated within the field of sexual psychopathology around the turn of the twentieth century, and is still attributed as a diagnosis in this context. This emphasises a presumed need for intervention (either directly or indirectly, by preventing access to pornographic and similar materials) to prevent behaviour deemed to be negative or unhealthy. Within the context of psychiatric visiting, the idea is most frequently associated by writers with the open doors of eighteenth-century Bethlem. Examples of the cruelty of some individual visitors in such circumstances are used to portray the very practice as essentially sadistic (another term popularised by Krafft-Ebing), ignoring the great diversity of experiences and motives for visiting, as well as issues later raised by the closing of institutional doors (including allegations of abuse).
Is voyeurism really a problem for today’s mental health museums? How would we even judge whether or not a person’s experiences of the collection were voyeuristic? As in the eighteenth century, the motivations for visiting psychiatric museums are extremely varied, ranging from personal and familial experience to social and political concerns or general interest. Indeed, fears over voyeurism might seem to conflict with the educational aims of many of these collections. A recent MA project at the University of Birmingham by Laura Humphreys found that lack of interest in fact appeared to be the biggest challenge for psychiatric museums, with a portion of the museum-going public not regarding such collections as relevant or interesting. If one aims (as the Bethlem Museum does) to contribute towards the destigmatisation of mental illness there is, after all, less point in preaching to the potentially converted (those with direct experience of mental health services by any means) than to the so-called “voyeurs” who may have a general interest but little knowledge of the realities of mental health experiences and treatment. Stigmatising such potential visitors as “voyeuristic” may be an elitist and potentially damaging attitude.
During last November’s panel discussion at UCL’s Petrie Museum, Chair Niall Boyce (Senior Editor of The Lancet) remarked on the potential for voyeurism in the display of images like those taken by Francis Galton at Bethlem in the 1880s. Similar concerns emerge frequently in discussion of psychiatric museums (and often medical museums in general): as Dolly MacKinnon and Catharine Coleborne recently put it, such collections are confronted with the problem that “a voyeuristic proportion of the public simply want to gaze at the mad.”1
But what is actually meant by “voyeurism” in such circumstances, and can any portion of visitors be so easily labelled and dismissed? Medical museums have long operated in relation to similar fears. When Henry Wellcome opened his Historical Medical Museum in Wigmore Street in 1913, visitors were carefully limited to “protect” the public: they thus mostly consisted of medical professionals and other educated, middle class (and usually male) visitors. This example clearly indicates the power relations inherent in claims of voyeurism (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often called “morbid curiosity”). Voyeurism was deemed to be a response exhibited by less educated individuals: a claim that offers worrying reflections on contemporary practice. The assumptions underlying such concerns may well lead to a “them” and “us” attitude. Archive and museum staff and academics thus assume that their own educational background ensures that they exhibit a “correct” response to psychiatric material (ignoring the fact that the potential for so-called voyeurism might equally exist within their own ranks), an idea used to support their privileged access, while denying it to those with a lower level of formal education.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, doctors frequently discussed the propriety of medical texts falling into the hands of lay readers: a fear particularly related to books on sexual matters. Reviews of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis – the huge expansion of which, mostly from readers’ letters, between the first edition in 1886 and the twelfth in 1903 made it abundantly clear that it was widely accessible – frequently suggested that the very existence of texts on sexual pathology generated and perpetuated such behaviour, by pandering to the unhealthy “morbid curiosity” of the public.
(to be continued)
1 Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), p. 8