Mystical Bedlam: Museums at Night

Last Thursday, we opened up after hours for Museums at Night 2013. We managed to squeeze a record number of visitors into the small space to explore ‘mystical Bedlam’ in the late nineteenth century. This free talk focused on the late nineteenth-century interest in hypnotism (about which we have previously blogged) as well as the involvement of several psychiatrists associated with Bethlem and psychical research, including Daniel Hack Tuke, George Savage and Theo B. Hyslop.

In 1906, Hyslop published a ‘sort-of novel’ (in the words of his obituarist, and successor at Bethlem, W.H.B. Stoddart). Laputa, Revisited by Gulliver Redivivus, was a satire of the customs and habits of the early twentieth century, based on the return of Gulliver to Laputa and the changes that he found there since his previous visit. Although published anonymously, it may have been obvious to readers that the book was written by a psychiatrist, for a good third of the text takes place inside the Laputan asylum. Here, Gulliver attends a lecture entitled ‘The Moon v. Green Cheese’, in which Hyslop satirises most psychological approaches of the day. Scottish surgeon James Braid, for example (well-known for his work on hypnotism in the first half of the nineteenth century), becomes the ‘Past and Present Grand Master of Black and White Magicians’, while the Society for Psychical Research is characterised as the ‘Society for Psychical Spook-Spotters (British and Foreign)’.

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It might be tempting to conclude from this that Hyslop found hypnotism and psychical research as a whole to be something of a joke. Yet the Laputan lecture is equally scathing about biological (evolutionary and determinist) approaches to mind. Indeed, when the lecture was first published in Bethlem’s Under the Dome in 1896 (as a talk from the ‘Bethlem Association for the Advancement of Science’), Hyslop was himself an Associate of the Society for Psychical Research, a position he maintained until at least 1901. He corresponded with French psychologist Pierre Janet, and published on ‘double consciousness’, in which he used examples of altered states that he had encountered at Bethlem. His connections also encouraged him to develop an open mind about symptoms of mental illness, such as hallucinations, which the Society for Psychical Research had discovered were more common among the ordinary population than had been previously assumed.

We hope at the Archives and Museum that a historical approach to mental health care can encourage critical thinking and enable complex issues to be thoughtfully addressed. At Museums at Night, we took the opportunity to ask people about the designs for the new Museum of the Mind, and got some detailed and extremely useful feedback. For online visitors, we’ll be repeating this process over the coming weeks with a series of short questionnaires focused around specific elements of the planned displays. All comments will be gratefully received, and help us to ensure that the new Bethlem Museum reflects the broadest possible range of interests and experiences.

To begin this process, we’d like to invite you to help to choose the logo for the new museum, from three designs suggested to us. To record your thoughts, click on the link below.

 Click here to take survey

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