Posts Tagged 'Curatorial Conversations'

Curatorial Conversations XIV

The last essay included in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon’s volume Exhibiting Madness in Museums (our ‘conversation partner’ on this thread over the past year or so) is written by Fiona Parrott and begins: “Studies of psychiatric collecting have tended to focus on the material and visual traces of institutional environments of the past, rather than privileging the traces and presence of patients inside these institutions”.1 On a casual reading, this looks like a criticism, an accusation of bias either on the part of the psychiatric collections or those that have studied them . Yet there is a perfectly innocuous explanation for this tendency. When patients leave hospital – any hospital – they generally take their property with them, and their collections stay private as a consequence. In this regard the exhibition The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic is the exception that proves the rule. (Interestingly, Fiona Parrott’s essay describes the reluctance of today’s medium secure unit residents to decorate their rooms with possessions or even put posters on the walls, saying things like “I don’t want to make it look like I’m here for a long-time”.2) As a result, psychiatric collections, artefactual or archival, tend to consist largely of institutional records, which rarely contain unmediated accounts of the attitudes of patients, or of the general public, towards mental healthcare.

At first glance, the collections here at Bethlem are of this institutional nature. Indeed, the Archives & Museum is appointed as a place of deposit for the public records of the NHS Foundation Trust of which it is a part and its antecedents. Yet a little digging shows that the perspectives of patients are never far from the surface, even in the unlikeliest of places. Amongst the building records for the third hospital at St George’s Fields, for example, lie a set of plans and descriptions by the patient James Tilly Matthews, “probably for the first time ever, designs by a lunatic for a lunatic asylum, conceived not from the perspective of the doctors who will manage it but [from that of] the patients who will live in it”, according to Matthews’ biographer.3 There are, of course, more obvious places in our to look in our collections for patient perspectives. This blog’s In the Frame thread is an ongoing reminder of the breadth of our holdings of service user art.

Bethlem’s Victorian medical records open yet another window onto first-hand experiences at the Hospital. Contained in large casebooks, the majority of the record is written at one remove from the patients by Bethlem doctors. However, included in these books from time to time are letters from patients (and sometimes their relatives) to the Hospital, written during or after their stay. A wide range of modes of negotiation is represented here – complaint, threat, entreaty, gratitude. This is a valuable primary source for the patient side of the doctor-patient encounter, one which we hope to utilise in displays planned for our new museum. Though the curatorial conversations that are preparatory to our relocation are continuing, we have decided to close this particular thread of our blog, if only to make way for the discussion of other topics. Research into patients’ letters has already prompted more than one blog post, and we trust that it will prove a rich seam from which we can draw for future posts.

1 F.R. Parrott, The Material and Visual Culture of Patients in a Contemporary Psychiatric Secure Unit’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), page 178.

2 ibid., page 181-183.

3 Mike Jay, The Influencing Machine: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom (Strange Attractor Press, 2012), p. 186.


A glimpse inside a medium secure unit bedroom


Curatorial Conversations XIII

(continued from previous post)

Last month, we considered the application of the term “voyeurism” to museums of mental health. In further exploring this idea, it is interesting to note that the very term originated within the field of sexual psychopathology around the turn of the twentieth century, and is still attributed as a diagnosis in this context. This emphasises a presumed need for intervention (either directly or indirectly, by preventing access to pornographic and similar materials) to prevent behaviour deemed to be negative or unhealthy. Within the context of psychiatric visiting, the idea is most frequently associated by writers with the open doors of eighteenth-century Bethlem. Examples of the cruelty of some individual visitors in such circumstances are used to portray the very practice as essentially sadistic (another term popularised by Krafft-Ebing), ignoring the great diversity of experiences and motives for visiting, as well as issues later raised by the closing of institutional doors (including allegations of abuse).

Is voyeurism really a problem for today’s mental health museums? How would we even judge whether or not a person’s experiences of the collection were voyeuristic? As in the eighteenth century, the motivations for visiting psychiatric museums are extremely varied, ranging from personal and familial experience to social and political concerns or general interest. Indeed, fears over voyeurism might seem to conflict with the educational aims of many of these collections. A recent MA project at the University of Birmingham by Laura Humphreys found that lack of interest in fact appeared to be the biggest challenge for psychiatric museums, with a portion of the museum-going public not regarding such collections as relevant or interesting. If one aims (as the Bethlem Museum does) to contribute towards the destigmatisation of mental illness there is, after all, less point in preaching to the potentially converted (those with direct experience of mental health services by any means) than to the so-called “voyeurs” who may have a general interest but little knowledge of the realities of mental health experiences and treatment. Stigmatising such potential visitors as “voyeuristic” may be an elitist and potentially damaging attitude.

Curatorial Conversations XII

During last November’s panel discussion at UCL’s Petrie Museum, Chair Niall Boyce (Senior Editor of The Lancet) remarked on the potential for voyeurism in the display of images like those taken by Francis Galton at Bethlem in the 1880s. Similar concerns emerge frequently in discussion of psychiatric museums (and often medical museums in general): as Dolly MacKinnon and Catharine Coleborne recently put it, such collections are confronted with the problem that “a voyeuristic proportion of the public simply want to gaze at the mad.”1

But what is actually meant by “voyeurism” in such circumstances, and can any portion of visitors be so easily labelled and dismissed? Medical museums have long operated in relation to similar fears. When Henry Wellcome opened his Historical Medical Museum in Wigmore Street in 1913, visitors were carefully limited to “protect” the public: they thus mostly consisted of medical professionals and other educated, middle class (and usually male) visitors. This example clearly indicates the power relations inherent in claims of voyeurism (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often called “morbid curiosity”). Voyeurism was deemed to be a response exhibited by less educated individuals: a claim that offers worrying reflections on contemporary practice. The assumptions underlying such concerns may well lead to a “them” and “us” attitude. Archive and museum staff and academics thus assume that their own educational background ensures that they exhibit a “correct” response to psychiatric material (ignoring the fact that the potential for so-called voyeurism might equally exist within their own ranks), an idea used to support their privileged access, while denying it to those with a lower level of formal education.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, doctors frequently discussed the propriety of medical texts falling into the hands of lay readers: a fear particularly related to books on sexual matters. Reviews of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis – the huge expansion of which, mostly from readers’ letters, between the first edition in 1886 and the twelfth in 1903 made it abundantly clear that it was widely accessible – frequently suggested that the very existence of texts on sexual pathology generated and perpetuated such behaviour, by pandering to the unhealthy “morbid curiosity” of the public.

(to be continued)

1 Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), p. 8

Curatorial Conversations XI

For some time now, we have been using essays published in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon’s 2011 volume Exhibiting Madness in Museums as a sounding board to sustain an online conversation about curatorial practice in museums of psychiatry – a topic of importance for us here at Bethlem, as plans for the relocation of its Archives & Museum and renewal of its display space continue to develop. In recent months, we have devoted particular attention to one of the volume’s most suggestive essays, that written by David Wright and Nathan Flis. Before we move on from it, we want to reflect upon on the contrast drawn there between “the ubiquitous asylum museum” and the “nuanced and balanced” displays, exampled by “the Museum of Brisbane’s Remembering Goodna exhibition in Australia in 2009”, that Wright and Flis think are more rarely achieved. They style the former “museums of madness” which seem to be “voyeuristic in their insistence that the history of madness is one of violence and trauma” and which “implicitly neglect and victimise (and even make invisible) the patient rather than empower him or her”. 1 To judge from another essay in Exhibiting Madness,2 and from a presentation on the Museum of Brisbane exhibition given to members of the UK’s Health Archives and Records Group in 2010, Remembering Goodna was indeed a sensitive and thought-provoking exhibition, employing strategies of community curation and interpretative participation to good effect. We think it is fair – and uncontroversial – to assert that the level of curatorial sophistication available within “the ubiquitous asylum museum run by volunteer staff and patients” is lower than that which can be mobilised elsewhere, and that there are traps associated with the subject matter into which an unwary curator may easily fall.

Despite having recently visited volunteer-led museums in Bristol, Wakefield, and Hamilton, Ontario (the interior of the last of which is pictured below), here at the Archives & Museum we wonder just how ‘ubiquitous’ institutions of this sort actually are, mindful as we are of colleagues in continental Europe who have deliberately crafted psychiatric museum displays which are simultaneously provocative, balanced and open-ended. The particular contrast drawn by Wright and Flis is shaped by a general contrast between museums which are adequately resourced, both professionally and financially, and those that are principally fueled by the enthusiasm of a few.

1 D. Wright and N. Flis, ‘A Grave Injustice: The Mental Hospital and Shifting Sites of Memory’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 102 and 107.

2 J. Besley and M. Finnane, ‘Remembering Goodna: Stories from a Queensland Mental Hospital’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 116-136.

Hamilton Museum

Curatorial Conversations X

The point of departure for the article by David Wright and Nathan Flis that formed the basis of posts to this blog in February and March is the recent trend of reclamation and memorialisation of asylum cemeteries in countries such as Canada, Australia and the USA. At one level, they write, such cemetery projects ‘provide a necessary and dignified service…to clean up and properly designate graves’ and ‘provide a forum for collective action which provides meaning and helps define new patient advocacy groups’. At another level, ‘the new cemeteries afford an opportunity where survivors can “speak” to the dead’, as it were. In the words of a Canadian project volunteer, ‘By recovering these headstones we’re saying, “They will no longer be forgotten”’.1

Wright and Flis go on to argue that both remembering and mis-remembering are inextricably linked in this process of memorialisation. First, they say, ‘the public…often misattributes the medical experimentation of the early to mid-twentieth century with the first two generations of the asylum in the nineteenth’. Second, a focus on asylum cemeteries brings the strictly singular but immensely powerful ‘cultural tropes’ of war and holocaust, displacement and victimisation, to bear upon the history of mental health treatment, and tends to obscure ‘the permeability of the mental hospital, one factor of which was the discharge of many patients back into the community where they largely disappeared from the public record’..2

Part of our work here at the Archives & Museum is to respond to genealogical enquiries. In doing so, we are conscious that patients who died while in hospital care are far more ‘visible’ to posterity than those who did not, for the simple reason that death certificates form one of the sources of information that is most readily accessible to the modern genealogist. Confining one’s attention to people who died at Bethlem might give rise to the unwitting impression that lifelong residence was the experience of the majority of its patients, an impression as erroneous for seventeenth and eighteenth-century practice as it would be for nineteenth and twentieth, to say nothing of twenty-first. We are keen that our Archives & Museum service does all it can to assist efforts at remembering, but we cannot be expected to support exercises in mis-remembering. The history of British mental health treatment is not an unvariegated chronicle of brutality and genocide.

1 D. Wright and N. Flis, ‘A Grave Injustice: The Mental Hospital and Shifting Sites of Memory’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 101 and 111.

2 ibid, pp. 111-113.

Curatorial Conversations IX: Challenging History

Our ongoing post series, Curatorial Conversations, has addressed a number of the challenging aspects of displaying and interpreting psychiatric collections. The notion of a challenge incorporates both the concern that such histories are difficult in and of themselves, but also that any interpretation should challenge received ideas of mental health history. The recent Challenging History conference at City University spoke to similar themes, arising from a previous network on the topic. Papers, workshops and keynote speakers addressed a variety of “difficult” histories, as well as sparking debate over the nature of the role held by museums in delivering ideas.

The conference opened to an inspiring address from David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool, questioning the notion that the educational nature of museums requires them both to avoid difficult subjects and concentrate on intellectual ideas. Fleming, drawing on examples of museums as monuments to genocide, political turmoil and war, proposed that challenging subjects open up the opportunity to engage the emotions of audiences. Emotions, he argued, not objects, are at the heart of social history museums: why would any museum desire to be neutral and dispassionate, even if such an approach were possible? Of course, such an ideology contains further concerns. As one participant in the discussion pointed out, emotions can be divisive as well as shared, while attempts to invoke feeling might easily be viewed as manipulative or propagandist. Nonetheless, Fleming’s was an interesting reminder that the idea that a museum might present an entirely “objective” view of history is a widely held myth.  The museum, created by staff, governors and associated organisations and communities with social and political agendas, will certainly reflect the context in which it is created. Opening up discussion of this context, as we have aimed to do around the Bethlem Museum, becomes an important element of determining the content and message of the museum itself.

But who, ultimately, decides on this message? In the most thought-provoking talk of the conference, museum consultant Bernadette Lynch addressed the topic of community participation and consultation in the heritage sector. One interesting analogy, stemming from her recent report for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Whose Cake Is It Anyway?, was that of the “wheels on the bus” model, an easy trap to fall into in museum consultation. In this example, a museum worker designing an exhibition involves a local community group in consultation, asking them to contribute their own designs, adding wheels and windows to the existing bus outline. Such a task clearly leaves little room for interpretation and choice – it is obvious where wheels and windows should be placed. Nonetheless, the group attempt to contribute alternative ideas, which the museum worker receives with some trepidation. Ultimately, however, she discards all those contributions which don’t fit her initial idea, retaining only the few that do: a process that frequently, Dr Lynch argued, leaves external groups with a feeling of having contributed to their own marginalisation. The museum sets the limits of engagement from the outset, disempowering those whose voices it claims to champion.

This picture may seem unduly negative but, incorporated into the overall debate of the conference, it becomes a very positive reminder. It is all too easy, particularly for those working within “challenging” historical fields, to assume that their work is unquestionably worthy, due simply to its subject matter. Challenging History reminds us that what we ultimately need to challenge is ourselves: our opinions, ideas and – most importantly – our practice.

You can join the new Challenging History discussion list here. A forthcoming book will also further address the themes of the conference.

Curatorial Conversations VIII

( continued from a previous post )

Instances of exhibits that function in the way described by Wright and Flis are given not only by them – we will return to their commentary in a future post in this series of conversations – but also by other contributors to the Exhibiting Madness volume. Bronwyn Labrum highlights two antipodean examples of displays that seem to fit Wright and Flis’ description of the “ubiquitous asylum museum”.  In Labrum’s account, these displays are centred on late nineteenth-century ‘seclusion rooms’ and are interpreted by museum labels written from the point of view of the staff who used them to manage patient (mis)behaviour.

“Visitors arrive at the dramatic isolation cell with its peephole, after proceeding through several rooms…It creates an aura of secrecy and dread, and reinforces the stereotypes about lunatics and confinement…The detailed description of the seclusion room continues to resonate… Seclusion Room – used right up until the late 1960’s [sic]. A shutter was placed over the window to prevent violent people from harming themselves. The mattress on the bed and blanket are made of heavy canvas to prevent them from being torn up..” 1

It seems to us that the common failing of these kind of displays – whether inculcating a “psychiatric establishment” perspective on the history of mental health treatment (as in Labrum’s examples), or an “anti-psychiatric survivor” perspective (which, as we will see when we come to the examples offered by Wright and Flis, is equally vulnerable to the temptation of voyeurism) – lies precisely in their tendency to inculcate. We conceive of the Archives & Museum here at Bethlem as being something other than the “ubiquitous asylum museum”, and to assist in the discharge of the task we have assumed of “recording the lives and experience, and celebrating the achievements of people with mental health problems”, we want our new displays (still only in the planning stage at the moment) to inform, engage, provoke and question…but certainly not to inculcate.

1 B. Labrum, ‘Always Distinguishable From Outsiders: Materialising Cultures of Clothing from Psychiatric Institutions’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), pages 71 and 73.