Last month, we travelled to several different archives and museums around the country to take part in events on asylum history. These included a mental health history day at the Lancashire Records Office in Preston, and the Asylum Science conference, held at the old West Riding Asylum in Wakefield. Both events showed what a widespread interest there is in the field, as well as the variety of resources that are available to explore the Victorian asylum in particular. At the ‘From Bedlam to Whittingham’ event in Preston, our talk on the variety of patient experiences in nineteenth century Bethlem was accompanied by detailed investigation into the records held up in Lancashire: from Whittingham Asylum, Lancaster Castle and other local institutions. Kathryn Rooke of the Lancashire Records Office gave a fascinating presentation detailing how to explore family history through these records, beginning with finding a name in admission registers. Once the admission record is found, a researcher can follow their ancestor through detailed admission papers, case book entries, and often even photographs.
As we reminded visitors in our own talk, these asylum records give only a tiny snapshot of one moment of the life of a person, generally reported by someone else (although sometimes letters can be found pasted into case book pages). In a thought-provoking, and often unsettling, close to the day, Ian Cummins from the University of Salford brought home how little this is often respected by press reports. Bringing us back to the twenty-first century with an exploration of news reports on mental health topics, Cummins offered a powerful reminder that stigma and stereotypes are often founded on this one-dimensional representation of people. Media reports tend to interpret a person’s actions, manner and appearance – past and present – through a current (or past) diagnosis of mental illness. Looking at historical records, we hope, will help to prevent the perpetuation of these stereotypes.
The Asylum Science conference was predominantly based around these historical records, asking what archives can tell us about the ways Victorian doctors aimed to apply scientific research in their work, through architecture, instruments, post mortems and public health. Again, however, the relation between past and present was emphasised at the end of the day, when John Hall spoke about his experiences at the hospital in the late twentieth century. For a full report of the day, see the Asylum Science Blog. We will, however, be writing again soon to include some of the photographs of the site tour, and the fascinating artwork in the Stephen Beaumont Museum of Mental Health, where the day ended.