Curatorial Conversations XII

During last November’s panel discussion at UCL’s Petrie Museum, Chair Niall Boyce (Senior Editor of The Lancet) remarked on the potential for voyeurism in the display of images like those taken by Francis Galton at Bethlem in the 1880s. Similar concerns emerge frequently in discussion of psychiatric museums (and often medical museums in general): as Dolly MacKinnon and Catharine Coleborne recently put it, such collections are confronted with the problem that “a voyeuristic proportion of the public simply want to gaze at the mad.”1

But what is actually meant by “voyeurism” in such circumstances, and can any portion of visitors be so easily labelled and dismissed? Medical museums have long operated in relation to similar fears. When Henry Wellcome opened his Historical Medical Museum in Wigmore Street in 1913, visitors were carefully limited to “protect” the public: they thus mostly consisted of medical professionals and other educated, middle class (and usually male) visitors. This example clearly indicates the power relations inherent in claims of voyeurism (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often called “morbid curiosity”). Voyeurism was deemed to be a response exhibited by less educated individuals: a claim that offers worrying reflections on contemporary practice. The assumptions underlying such concerns may well lead to a “them” and “us” attitude. Archive and museum staff and academics thus assume that their own educational background ensures that they exhibit a “correct” response to psychiatric material (ignoring the fact that the potential for so-called voyeurism might equally exist within their own ranks), an idea used to support their privileged access, while denying it to those with a lower level of formal education.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, doctors frequently discussed the propriety of medical texts falling into the hands of lay readers: a fear particularly related to books on sexual matters. Reviews of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis – the huge expansion of which, mostly from readers’ letters, between the first edition in 1886 and the twelfth in 1903 made it abundantly clear that it was widely accessible – frequently suggested that the very existence of texts on sexual pathology generated and perpetuated such behaviour, by pandering to the unhealthy “morbid curiosity” of the public.

(to be continued)


1 Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), p. 8

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1 Response to “Curatorial Conversations XII”


  1. 1 Ed Brandon July 19, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Some really interesting considerations raised there. It puts me in mind of Helkiah Crooke (1576-1648) – former “Master” at Bethlem (the original building of course) who published “Mikrokosmographia” in 1615, the first comprehensive and (comparatively) accurate study of anatomy published in the English language. The Church decried the book, with its “indecent” depictions of human genitalia, pregnancy and childbirth, but their main objection was that, being written in English, it was accessible to a less “discerning” audience than those well-educated enough in Christ’s teachings to be able read Latin – the language of all medical books up to that point.

    I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to attempt to second-guess the attitudes of any individual or section of the general public – although we have seen that type of snobbery manifest itself in every area where censorship and “knowing best” could apply, from the moving image to the printed word, and now to medical history displays. All one can do is present psychiatric/medical history as accurately as possible and without lending undue favour to the more gruesome/shocking practices and stories when marketing any particular exhibition/display. The only other alternative would be a form of “history censorship”, based on what a minority considered “appropriate” for the fickle masses – an attitude which would not help to improve anyone’s understanding of psychiatric history.


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