Recently, we asked readers to respond to a questionnaire on how we might display challenging objects in the Bethlem collection in the new Museum of the Mind. In particular, we flagged up historical restraints and ECT machines, but other items were also noted to be potentially distressing or difficult for museum visitors, including images of physical illness or death, tools for psychosurgery and patients’ belongings. However, the vast majority of people felt that all these items should, nonetheless, be put on display, and did not necessarily feel that the visitor should be warned in advance or given the chance to opt out of seeing the objects.
In part, this attitude seems to have been associated with the concern that difficult questions within mental health care, past and present, might be brushed under the carpet. If unpleasant items were ignored, those people who participated in the focus groups insisted, this would risk sanitising the history of mental health care, as well as refusing to acknowledge ongoing concerns, for example the side effects of medication. Yet some people also indicated that an exhibition of mental health that viewed the topic only through changing medical ideas and treatments ran the risk of objectifying patients. An exhibition, then, should also seek to show something about the daily lives and experiences of those in mental distress.
We aim to address these issues in the Museum of the Mind aims by dividing the display into a number of themes, rather than following the history of psychiatry chronologically. Those particularly relevant to the challenging objects mentioned above will be a section on ‘Freedom and Constraint’, looking at the physical and social constraints that have been and are imposed on those within the mental health system, as well as the reverse: the relief some people have found in the natural world, for example, or the freedom of creativity in art. Meanwhile, a section on ‘Heal or Harm’ will look critically at the history of therapeutics, including physical and psychological therapies.
The huge number of questions raised around these challenging objects in the consultation, from when items were made and how they were used, to what it was like to experience them suggest that there is a lot we need to squeeze into the museum. While this might not always be possible in display spaces, we’re looking at alternative ways to convey as much detail as we can. Where, of course, this detail is known. As in any museum, we can be limited by the information collected. For example, we currently know little more about the metal restraints in our care (pictured below) than are visible from looking at them! The planned displays, however, seek to make this an opportunity rather than a challenge, allowing for multiple stories to be attached to any particular object.