Curatorial Conversations IV

We are grateful to those who have so far joined the conversation about what and how museums of psychiatry ought to collect, preserve and display, and for coming out so strongly in defence of the museum’s mission. Readers may rest assured: there is no threat of destruction or dispersal hanging over our museum holdings. Yet Colborne and MacKinnon’s Exhibiting Madness in Museums, which we have been reading and responding to as if to a conversation partner, draws attention to artefacts of particular sensitivity within historic psychiatric collections.

What do these arguably ‘odd’ collections of mouth gags, wrist and ankle shackles, bowls, jackets, sporting equipment, locks and keys, and medicine bottles mean? What is their purpose?1

Last year, some of the eighteenth century restraint devices held here at Bethlem were featured in the BBC’s History of the World website. As we noted at the time, the Victorian-era Hospital ‘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’, and today ‘these objects remind of the ongoing debate concerning involuntary detention, seclusion and chemical restraint’.

Coleborne and MacKinnon report that ‘touching, holding and viewing [such] objects…has had a therapeutic value for some’, whereas for others they ‘symbolise fear, serving as reminders of past experiences of brutal and lonely institutional spaces’.2 Nurin Veis, curator at Museum Victoria, adds that audiences for medical exhibitions can display a ‘a fascination with the unknown, the hidden, and at times, the forbidden’ and are easily ‘captivated by the gothic theatricality evoked by displays of medical artefacts’ and provoked into ‘dramatic experiences of high emotion – ranging from moments of pain and revulsion, recognition of stigma, as well as personal insight’.3

Here at the Archives & Museum we do not think it would be right to use our collections for the purpose of manufacturing such experiences. We know that there are a wide range of possible reactions to these kind of displays. We do not wish to shepherd the responses of our visitors, but we do want to provide the information people need to understand the historical, medical and social context of the artefacts we have on display, and to reflect upon their contemporary significance.

1. Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), page 20.

2. ibid.

3. Nurin Veis, ‘The Ethics of Exhibiting Psychaitric Materials’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), page 48.

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