Photography Feedback: Museum of the Mind

As part of our recent consultation into a number of issues relating to the Museum of the Mind, we carried out a survey on the use of real historic photographs of Bethlem patients. Those over 100 years old are in the public domain, but this does not prevent display of the images raising a number of ethical questions. In our online survey, we showed three very different images, and asked people for their thoughts on the photographs. The first one, Captain G.J., has already been blogged about in the Hospital Snapshots series. However, displayed without this information, many viewers assumed him to have been a Victorian psychiatrist rather than a patient. Portrait photographs, then, can play an important role in confronting preconceptions about mental illness, and those who experience it.

The second picture shown was more challenging to many people: indeed, while in most of our surveys the vast majority of people concluded that it is both useful and important to display historical photographs of patients, the image of Miss Smith was thought the least appropriate for display. Questions abounded about the style of the image, with the number displayed prominently on her chest the most puzzling part. Was this for identification purposes? To enable the picture to be used anonymously? Was it always worn, like a prison identification number?

This image is not, in fact, from the Bethlem Collection, although it is of a Bethlem patient. In 1881-2, Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) visited Bethlem to take a large number of patient photographs, about which we have previously blogged. Galton, a well-known scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin, was fascinated by statistical measurements of human characteristics. In 1885, he founded an Anthropometric Laboratory, at which visitors could have a variety of measurements taken, including fingerprinting and cranial measurements, paying to take the results home. His series of Bethlem portraits was another part of his data collection, which aimed to identify hereditary characteristics in asylum patients. So that he could create composites of these images (layering a number of photographs over each other), all were carefully framed so that each person’s head was in the same location and position. The numbers were presumably for identification purposes, although not everyone pictured is wearing a number, and neither are all the numbers in the same format. Nonetheless, the photographs are all very individual. Clothing and hairstyles vary considerably from person to person, as do facial expressions. Moreover, the variation in characteristics meant that Galton was not able to create composites from the images at all.

There is no record of these photographs being taken: indeed, it is mentioned nowhere in the Annual Reports or patients case books – quite unusual for scientific research carried out at Bethlem. Just under half of the hospital residents were photographed, but we don’t know how the subjects were chosen. We do, however, have records of these patients’ stays in the hospital, offering a brief snapshot of a particular period in a person’s life. Miss Smith was admitted to Bethlem on at least two occasions, both times diagnosed with acute mania. On her first admission she was 28 years old, single and living with her uncle (a potato salesman) in Peckham. She stayed for just over a year. In February 1888, Miss Smith was admitted a second time, described as noisy, incoherent and violent. Once again, she gradually became quieter, and was discharged recovered in May 1889.

What brought Miss Smith to Bethlem? It is hard to judge from the records, which offer very little detail, other than describing her incoherent speech, wild behaviour and difficulty sleeping. The photographs of this young woman, however, (a picture was also taken on her second admission, aged 35) remind us of just how little we know about her experiences beyond the medical realm: despite the fact that for most of her life she was not in an asylum, where she spent just two of thirty-five years.

The Galton photographs are part of the UCL Special Collections. You can find out more about the Galton Collection online here.

 photo misssmithsmall_zps62a0c446.jpg

Miss Smith photographed by Francis Galton

UCL Library Services, Special Collections

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