Bethlem Sunfayre 2011: Art, Health and History

Last weekend the Hospital welcomed a reported thousand people onsite for the annual Sunfayre, to enjoy the good weather and delicious cupcakes onsale, in addition to rides, massages, tennis and a talent contest! The Archives and Museum was as busy as in previous years, with about 120 people following talks and tours from the Education Room, and a further 175 managing to cram into the small exhibition space – almost constantly crowded after 2pm. Many visitors lived locally, and found the museum and talks “genuinely fascinating”. Some had previously worked at the Hospital, with one visitor telling staff of her time here as a student nurse in the 1970s, and the ways in which the site had subsequently changed. Others had connections with the Hospital’s other historical sites, such as one gentleman who had previously lived just around the corner from the Imperial War Museum and knew that area as “Bethlem Park”.

All were agreed that the displays housed “incredible art work”, a theme continued in the Gallery’s exhibition on Art From Ephemera, showcasing contemporary artworks in conjunction with casebooks, leaflets and other material from the Archive collection from the ninteenth and twentieth centuries. As well as art, there was the opportunity to hear and read the stories of some of Bethlem’s patients from 150 years ago, through exploration of the casebooks and historical portraits, shown below. The Archivist reminded visitors that such only provide a snapshot into the lives of these individuals, who cannot be defined by their periods of mental ill-health. These nineteenth-century patients were usually in Bethlem for less than a year, and we know little about them beyond their hospital stay. Nonetheless, stories such as that of Emma Riches, who stayed in Bethlem five times in the mid nineteenth century, each time following the birth of a child and discharged cured after 6-9 months, can help to de-mystify contemporary experiences of mental ill-health.

IMG_8312A talk on the 1850s Henry Hering photographs of Bethlem patients; potraits include three ‘before’/’after’ pairs

(Emma Riches is shown in the two images in the middle)

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