Insanity and the Nineteenth-Century Asylum: Birmingham City University

As previously reported on this blog, a conference in Birmingham recently explored nineteenth-century asylums. One researcher, Jennifer Wallis, kindly provided us with a few details of the day along with photos of the old asylum in which it took place. She writes:

“It’s Friday the 13th and I’m on my way to an ex-asylum chapel for Birmingham City University’s conference, ‘Insanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century’. It all sounds a bit like a schlocky horror movie plot, and my taxi driver looks dubious at my request to be dropped off here. The building that houses the chapel is now owned by the Ministry of Justice and is attached to Birmingham Prison; coming up the drive I see an elegant Victorian building that looks out onto a large expanse of green, windows glinting in the sunlight. Things are certainly looking up.

“Today’s one-day conference is an interdisciplinary look at the nineteenth-century asylum, its patients, methods and representations – and with four sets of parallel sessions, I can see myself having to make some tough decisions. We start the morning in the asylum chapel which – though retaining its original stained-glass windows and basic woodwork – has perhaps lost some of its old character in its new guise as a meeting room. Professor John Goodridge provides the first plenary lecture and a strong start to the day; his discussion of the changing interpretations of poet John Clare’s ‘madness’ is thought-provoking and highlights the often challenging nature of working in the history of psychiatry, as he draws a distinction between madness as cultural phenomenon and clinical diagnosis.

“Goodridge’s lecture nicely sets up the rest of the day. The issue of defining madness runs through many of the papers, from Gerald Sedlmayr’s (Würzburg) examination of mania and melancholia to Claire Mendes’ (Leicester) fascinating look at discussions of the asylum in the women’s press of the 1890s. It’s both refreshing and stimulating to wander from papers on the depiction of insanity in the Victorian novel (Helen Goodman, RHUL), to the architecture of the asylum (Katherine Fennelly, Manchester), right through to a ‘bioarchaeological’ study of inmate experiences at America’s Oneida Asylum (Shawn Phillips, Indiana State).

“The day ends, appropriately enough, back in the chapel with Dr Jonathan Andrews delivering a lecture on the role of the asylum chaplain. His paper reminds us of the multiple avenues of investigation that can be pursued by studying the nineteenth-century asylum: the staff within it, the often changing and competing explanations of what it meant to be ‘insane’, and of course the experiences of the patients themselves. We leave an enthused and enlightened group; the broad scope of the conference means I’ve met people whose work I might never have stumbled across otherwise, and I only hope that we’ll see a similar conference soon.”

For the full conference programme, visit the Birmingham City University website.

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