Curatorial Conversations X

The point of departure for the article by David Wright and Nathan Flis that formed the basis of posts to this blog in February and March is the recent trend of reclamation and memorialisation of asylum cemeteries in countries such as Canada, Australia and the USA. At one level, they write, such cemetery projects ‘provide a necessary and dignified service…to clean up and properly designate graves’ and ‘provide a forum for collective action which provides meaning and helps define new patient advocacy groups’. At another level, ‘the new cemeteries afford an opportunity where survivors can “speak” to the dead’, as it were. In the words of a Canadian project volunteer, ‘By recovering these headstones we’re saying, “They will no longer be forgotten”’.1

Wright and Flis go on to argue that both remembering and mis-remembering are inextricably linked in this process of memorialisation. First, they say, ‘the public…often misattributes the medical experimentation of the early to mid-twentieth century with the first two generations of the asylum in the nineteenth’. Second, a focus on asylum cemeteries brings the strictly singular but immensely powerful ‘cultural tropes’ of war and holocaust, displacement and victimisation, to bear upon the history of mental health treatment, and tends to obscure ‘the permeability of the mental hospital, one factor of which was the discharge of many patients back into the community where they largely disappeared from the public record’..2

Part of our work here at the Archives & Museum is to respond to genealogical enquiries. In doing so, we are conscious that patients who died while in hospital care are far more ‘visible’ to posterity than those who did not, for the simple reason that death certificates form one of the sources of information that is most readily accessible to the modern genealogist. Confining one’s attention to people who died at Bethlem might give rise to the unwitting impression that lifelong residence was the experience of the majority of its patients, an impression as erroneous for seventeenth and eighteenth-century practice as it would be for nineteenth and twentieth, to say nothing of twenty-first. We are keen that our Archives & Museum service does all it can to assist efforts at remembering, but we cannot be expected to support exercises in mis-remembering. The history of British mental health treatment is not an unvariegated chronicle of brutality and genocide.

1 D. Wright and N. Flis, ‘A Grave Injustice: The Mental Hospital and Shifting Sites of Memory’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 101 and 111.

2 ibid, pp. 111-113.

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