Curatorial Conversations VIII

( continued from a previous post )

Instances of exhibits that function in the way described by Wright and Flis are given not only by them – we will return to their commentary in a future post in this series of conversations – but also by other contributors to the Exhibiting Madness volume. Bronwyn Labrum highlights two antipodean examples of displays that seem to fit Wright and Flis’ description of the “ubiquitous asylum museum”.  In Labrum’s account, these displays are centred on late nineteenth-century ‘seclusion rooms’ and are interpreted by museum labels written from the point of view of the staff who used them to manage patient (mis)behaviour.

“Visitors arrive at the dramatic isolation cell with its peephole, after proceeding through several rooms…It creates an aura of secrecy and dread, and reinforces the stereotypes about lunatics and confinement…The detailed description of the seclusion room continues to resonate… Seclusion Room – used right up until the late 1960’s [sic]. A shutter was placed over the window to prevent violent people from harming themselves. The mattress on the bed and blanket are made of heavy canvas to prevent them from being torn up..” 1

It seems to us that the common failing of these kind of displays – whether inculcating a “psychiatric establishment” perspective on the history of mental health treatment (as in Labrum’s examples), or an “anti-psychiatric survivor” perspective (which, as we will see when we come to the examples offered by Wright and Flis, is equally vulnerable to the temptation of voyeurism) – lies precisely in their tendency to inculcate. We conceive of the Archives & Museum here at Bethlem as being something other than the “ubiquitous asylum museum”, and to assist in the discharge of the task we have assumed of “recording the lives and experience, and celebrating the achievements of people with mental health problems”, we want our new displays (still only in the planning stage at the moment) to inform, engage, provoke and question…but certainly not to inculcate.

1 B. Labrum, ‘Always Distinguishable From Outsiders: Materialising Cultures of Clothing from Psychiatric Institutions’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 71 and 73.

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2 Responses to “Curatorial Conversations VIII”


  1. 1 Ed Brandon March 27, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Very interesting…you can see why those creating the “ubiquitous asylum museum” fall into such traps – the obvious societal revulsion of past practices that seem barbaric outside their historical context meets up with a perceived need to “entertain” visitors by shocking them and you’ve ended up with The London Dungeon rather than anything that really contextualises or tells the whole story.

  2. 2 Jackie Hopson March 27, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    This is a very important topic and I applaud Bethlem’s critically aware approach to it.


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