On the evening of 31 July, the MRC SGDP Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry and the Damaging the Body seminar series will co-host a public symposium on the topic of restraint and strong clothing in mental health care. This event accompanies artist Jane Fradgley’s held exhibition, on display in the foyer from 10th July to 27th September. This series of striking photographs of garments from the Bethlem collection was funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and, as previously noted on this blog, the artist has captured these late nineteenth and early twentieth-century garments in a very different manner from the usual methods of displaying such objects (previously explored in Curatorial Conversations IV).
The exhibition is currently on display at Plymouth Arts Centre (until 16 June). However, Jane’s photographs have already opened up debate around the topic in London. Last year, the Bethlem Gallery hosted a focus group on “strong clothing”, bringing together a variety of people within the mental health field: service users, clinical and curatorial staff, therapists and art practitioners. The garments and their history were exhibited, and a lively debate explored the various forms of coercion adopted within contemporary health care and the relation of the historical garments (and their display) to this context.
The term “strong clothing” was used by late nineteenth-century psychiatrists to refer to garments used in English asylums to restrict movement. These doctors wished to distinguish the clothing they used from the “revolting instruments of mechanical coercion” rejected by the “non-restraint” movement of the 1840s and ‘50s. While English asylum superintendents at this time claimed to have abandoned all methods of mechanical restraint, physicians of the 1880s and 1890s re-introduced restraining garments by claiming them to be something else entirely. Strait-jackets (generally known as strait-waistcoats) and handcuffs were replaced with “strong dresses” and “padded gloves”, placed on a relatively small number of patients to prevent self-inflicted injury or the destruction of clothing and other items. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, strait-jackets appear to have returned to some institutions.
Today, it is often assumed that the exhibition of restraining garments will be distressing to viewers: a stark reminder of past cruelties. Participants in the focus group, however, exposed a much more nuanced view of these items. The forthcoming symposium will invite a wider audience – including clinicians, historians, artists and service users – to explore what restraint is, and how (and if) we can ever draw a line between care, cure and control. Following short presentations from a variety of practitioners, the debate will be opened up to the audience.
Tickets are free, but places are limited and must be booked in advance at: heldsymposium.eventbrite.co.uk
Doors will open at 5pm, with a reception and chance to view the exhibition. The symposium will begin at 6pm, ending by 8pm. The artist will be releasing a book associated with the exhibition later in 2013, funded by the Maudsley Charity.
Location: MRC SGDP Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, 16 De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, SE5 8AF (within the Maudsley Hospital site).