As the British Museum gears up to reveal their 100th object today, we have added several items from our collection to the History of the World site, incorporating elements of the history of madness and mental health treatment from the Hospital’s founding in 1247 up to the present day.
The life-size statues of “Raving and Melancholy Madness,” were displayed at the entrance to Bethlem Hospital from 1676, have already been mentioned on this blog (here and here). As significant London landmarks of their time, these statues became symbolic of “human mental misery” (as a nineteenth century news reporter described it) for visitors from around the globe. As one German travel writer wrote in the late eighteenth century, “These two figures show so much truth and expressiveness that they equal the best sculptures in Westminster Abbey.”
More difficult to present, perhaps, are the eighteenth century restraint devices pictured below: nonetheless, these form a significant aspect of the history of mental health treatment in many areas of the world. Until the Victorian era, hospital patients that threatened violence against themselves or others were physically restrained from acting on their threats by a panoply of devices and garments engineered for the purpose, usually applied temporarily but sometimes for prolonged periods. These gradually fell into disuse upon the advent of the non-restraint movement, which swept the public asylums of England in the 1840s, and were banned altogether from Bethlem in 1853. Interestingly, Bethlem retained what it had come to regard as the “revolting instruments of mechanical coercion” as material evidence both of its history and of its progress. Today, these objects remind of the ongoing debate concerning involuntary detention, seclusion and chemical restraint.