Archive for the 'exhibitions' Category

Flight of Ideas: New Exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery opens 2 October

Next week, an exciting new exhibition to celebrate world mental health day will open at the Bethlem Gallery.  Flight of Ideas will start on 2 October, and continue until 25 October 2013.

Flight of Ideas is an exhibition of postcards made by artists staying and working in hospitals across Europe.  This exhibition is an international collaboration between innovative arts practice, studio spaces and galleries based within psychiatric healthcare in Croatia, France, Italy and the UK.  All four organisations are unique within their own countries.  Flight of Ideas celebrates their shared ideals framing them within the context of each nation’s system of mental health care.  These differing institutions all facilitate creative activity as part of the recovery process during a person’s time in hospital and support professional development of these artists beyond the hospital setting.

At the heart of the exhibition are the artists themselves. Their extraordinary talent will be presented within the size of a postcard but is broad and varied in the range of style, media and technique employed.  Artists working within the hospital environments range from having formal arts training to the self-taught. Their work shows, better than any document, their identity as artists and their right to lay claim to that status.

The World As Was Before, by Anon

The World As Was Before, by Anon (The Azienda USL di Reggio Emilia, Italy)


Foreign Bodies: New Exhibition at UCL

In 1942, G. O. Chambers (visiting surgeon to the English prison system) attempted to outline the “psychology of the intentional swallower”. Chambers was fascinated by the way in which foreign objects might end up in the alimentary tract, and what swallowing such items might say about a person: chiefly, he claimed, it indicated “an underlying psychological framework of egoism, vanity and self-attention”.1

Chambers’ understanding of intentional swallowing was framed through two (seemingly very different) categories of swallower: circus performers and incarcerated prisoners. Yet Chambers linked the two, despite their differences, by claiming that the latter exhibited an intensified version of the psychology of the former. Prisoners, he thought, were “stubborn, defiant and antisocial”, and their desire to gain attention and material gain mirrored the habits of circus performers.

While Chambers’ understanding of the intentional swallowing of non-food items seems simplistic and unduly pejorative, his interest in objects that had travelled through the human body was not unusual for this era. A few years earlier, Irish doctor Ian Fraser had declared that “a paper on foreign bodies is really a story of the human body.”2 Meanwhile, American surgeon Chevalier Jackson had amassed a collection of more than two thousand foreign bodies in the first few decades of the twentieth century.3

A new exhibition, which opened at UCL this week, takes the concept of the foreign body well beyond the medical realm. UCL Researchers in Museums (a group of PhD students in various disciplines) use foreign bodies as a starting point to look at the ways in which we define ourselves – biologically, psychologically socially and politically – through concepts of “otherness”. How and why do non-human items end up inside the human body? Where do we draw the line between human and animal, living being and inorganic “thing”, self and other? Through seven very different research projects, this exhibition addresses the idea of what is alien to us and how this concept has shifted across history, culture and even species.

The Foreign Bodies exhibition runs from 18 March to 14 July, in the North Cloisters (Wilkins Building), with a trail leading visitors to other foreign bodies in UCL Museums. Every Friday at 2pm (from April), there will be a curator-led tour taking visitors through some of the trail.

1 G. O. Chambers, “Foreign Bodies in the Alimentary Tract”, British Medical Journal, Sept 26 1942, 362-6

2 Ian Fraser, “Foreign Bodies”, British Medical Journal, 13 May 1939, p. 967. For more on this topic see Sarah Chaney, “Curious Appetites: Surgery and the Foreign Body”, The Lancet, Vol. 380 No. 9847, pp 1050-1051.

3 Mary Cappello, Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor who Extracted Them, New York, London: The New Press (2011).

Foreign Bodies exhibition poster

Madge Gill, Spiritualism and Outsider Art

Our current exhibition British Outsider Art (which runs until 3 November), includes three works by Madge Gill, an artist whose drawings are also currently on display at the Nunnery Gallery. This Madge Gill Retrospective takes the form of three exhibitions, each one co-curated by a contemporary artist, with works drawn from the huge – and rarely seen – collection of drawings held by the London Borough of Newham (where Madge lived for much of her life).

The exhibition catalogue includes new research into Gill’s life and work byDeanna Petherbridge, Sara Ayad and Gary Haines. This includes information on her exhibitions at the East End Academies (her works were present in all but one show between 1932 and 1947), and reflections on her position in British Outsider Art, in addition to a chronology of her life personalised by details from letters. Her prolific creations, which she felt emerged under the influence of a spirit guide name Myrninerest, seem to have been an ongoing puzzle to herself and others. Thirty-five years after beginning drawing and painting, Madge wrote that “here I am with it still unsolved, & I seem to be losing my hold on life.” She died seven years later, aged 79, her house filled with the artworks she refused to sell, claiming them to belong to Myrninerest. This is reflected in the design of the exhibition itself, in which the centre-piece (pictured below) is a large bed: pull-out drawers in the frame filled with intricately patterned postcards.

Historians have often suggested a connection between spiritualism and feminism: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mediumship was one of the few fields in which women could gain considerable power. Many mediums, both on the public circuit and working with scientists and psychologists in an effort to document the phenomena (and mental states) arising, were female and often achieved considerable acclaim, something well-documented in Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (1989). The wistful quotation from Gill at the beginning of the exhibition catalogue certainly strikes a chord in this respect: “If I had been a man I would have gone abroad & studied botany.” While spiritualism is a notion that frequently receives derision today, in its heyday many people found the concepts comforting and liberating.

The Madge Gill Retrospective at the Nunnery Gallery takes place in three stages:

Friday 15 June – Thursday 16 August

Friday 24 August – Thursday 1 November

Friday 9 November – Thursday 17 January

For more information, visit the Bow Arts website.


A Clearer, Bluer Sky: Exhibition Opens Next Week

For almost 700 years, Bethlem Royal Hospital was situated in the heart of London; first of all in the City, at Bishopsgate and Moorfields, and finally just south of the River Thames at St George’s Fields.

In the early 1920s, the Governors decided to move the hospital to its present location on the Kent / Surrey borders, and purchased the Monks Orchard Estate. The hospital chaplain, Edward O’Donoghue, paid several visits to the site prior to the move and wrote about his visits for Bethlem’s magazine Under the Dome. He wrote: It was on a solitary day of sunshine in the midst of a week of rain that I adventured forth to catch a glimpse of the park, in Kent, upon which the fourth Bethlehem Hospital is to rise into a clearer, bluer sky.

This exhibition explores the conversion of the site from country estate to modern hospital through maps, archive photographs and art from the reserve collection of Bethlem’s Archives and Museum.

Exhibition details:

Opening Event (all welcome): 11 January 2012, 3 – 6pm
Exhibition continues: 12 January – 3 February
Opening times: Wed, Thurs, Friday, 11am – 6pm
Gallery & Museum open Saturday 14 January, 11am – 5pm

Address: The Bethlem Gallery, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3BX
Nearest British Rail: Eden Park / East Croydon

Mansion and Lake 1 (2)

Curatorial Conversations V

During a recent consultation held in conjunction with our proposed museum relocation project, staff and consultants have spoken to a wide range of people, including current and former mental health service users, hospital staff, carers and local interest groups, about their ideas for the new museum. One session with a peer-led ‘Hearing Voices’ group was particularly inspirational, indicating just how creative a ‘museum of the mind’ might be, as well as the value that such a museum might hold for some service users: a chance to increase understanding of their condition by sharing their experiences.

The discussion indicated many of the ways in which perceptions of museums have altered in the past decades. The group (many of whom often visited art galleries) preferred interactive exhibits within a clean, modern, welcoming building to traditional display cases and period buildings. Sound and video installations were regarded as vital, and the best means of portraying ‘hearing voices’ to those who had never had such experiences was discussed.

One of the most challenging issues a ‘hearing voices’ display would have to confront is how to effectively portray an ‘average’ experience, at the same time making it clear that the experience of every mental health service user is unique. Perhaps an interactive exhibit could confront this issue? Shared experiences might be viewed through a large-screen video installation, for example, in which the viewer follows the path of a camera around a locked in-patient ward on a journey through the hospital from locked door to meds hatch. A lack of dialogue would suggest the common nature of such a journey. Yet to add a sense of the unique nature of patient experiences, visitors might remove headphones from the model of a head in order to listen to a recording of ‘voices’. Taking up headphones would suggest to visitors that they are sharing the experience of one of many individuals, among whom even similar symptoms may vary considerably.

Human, All Too Human 3

Blog readers who took up last week’s invitation to identify the emotions represented in the photographic portraits of Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne, and who have time to spare in London during the twelve days of Christmas, might be interested in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in the South Bank Centre. George Condo’s Mental States is an exhibition of ‘imaginary portraits’ which have the capacity (according to the Gallery’s blurb) to ‘arouse our horror, fascination and delight’ as well as ‘solicit our empathy as we come to sense that their extreme mental states echo familiar aspects of our own natures’. It is a travelling exhibition, having already been on display in New York and Rotterdam, and opened in Frankfurt in February.

What is more, the Hayward is giving visitors the opportunity to write their own labels for the works on display – an opportunity not unlike the one offered by the Darwin Correspondence Project, and an exercise in empathy which is altogether appropriate for the season, it might be thought. A selection of these responses is highlighted on the exhibition website.

Mental States runs until 8 January 2012.

Curatorial Conversations IV

We are grateful to those who have so far joined the conversation about what and how museums of psychiatry ought to collect, preserve and display, and for coming out so strongly in defence of the museum’s mission. Readers may rest assured: there is no threat of destruction or dispersal hanging over our museum holdings. Yet Colborne and MacKinnon’s Exhibiting Madness in Museums, which we have been reading and responding to as if to a conversation partner, draws attention to artefacts of particular sensitivity within historic psychiatric collections.

What do these arguably ‘odd’ collections of mouth gags, wrist and ankle shackles, bowls, jackets, sporting equipment, locks and keys, and medicine bottles mean? What is their purpose?1

Last year, some of the eighteenth century restraint devices held here at Bethlem were featured in the BBC’s History of the World website. As we noted at the time, the Victorian-era Hospital ‘retained what it had come to regard as the “revolting instruments of mechanical coercion” as material evidence both of its history and of its progress’, and today ‘these objects remind of the ongoing debate concerning involuntary detention, seclusion and chemical restraint’.

Coleborne and MacKinnon report that ‘touching, holding and viewing [such] objects…has had a therapeutic value for some’, whereas for others they ‘symbolise fear, serving as reminders of past experiences of brutal and lonely institutional spaces’.2 Nurin Veis, curator at Museum Victoria, adds that audiences for medical exhibitions can display a ‘a fascination with the unknown, the hidden, and at times, the forbidden’ and are easily ‘captivated by the gothic theatricality evoked by displays of medical artefacts’ and provoked into ‘dramatic experiences of high emotion – ranging from moments of pain and revulsion, recognition of stigma, as well as personal insight’.3

Here at the Archives & Museum we do not think it would be right to use our collections for the purpose of manufacturing such experiences. We know that there are a wide range of possible reactions to these kind of displays. We do not wish to shepherd the responses of our visitors, but we do want to provide the information people need to understand the historical, medical and social context of the artefacts we have on display, and to reflect upon their contemporary significance.

1. Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), page 20.

2. ibid.

3. Nurin Veis, ‘The Ethics of Exhibiting Psychaitric Materials’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), page 48.