Posts Tagged 'mechanical restraint'

Museum of the Mind: Challenging Objects Feedback

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.

Manacles in the Bethlem collection


held by Jane Fradgley: A Symposium on Restraint

On the evening of 31 July, the MRC SGDP Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry and the Damaging the Body seminar series will co-host a public symposium on the topic of restraint and strong clothing in mental health care. This event accompanies artist Jane Fradgley’s held exhibition, on display in the foyer from 10th July to 27th September. This series of striking photographs of garments from the Bethlem collection was funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and, as previously noted on this blog, the artist has captured these late nineteenth and early twentieth-century garments in a very different manner from the usual methods of displaying such objects (previously explored in Curatorial Conversations IV).

The exhibition is currently on display at Plymouth Arts Centre (until 16 June). However, Jane’s photographs have already opened up debate around the topic in London. Last year, the Bethlem Gallery hosted a focus group on “strong clothing”, bringing together a variety of people within the mental health field: service users, clinical and curatorial staff, therapists and art practitioners. The garments and their history were exhibited, and a lively debate explored the various forms of coercion adopted within contemporary health care and the relation of the historical garments (and their display) to this context.

The term “strong clothing” was used by late nineteenth-century psychiatrists to refer to garments used in English asylums to restrict movement. These doctors wished to distinguish the clothing they used from the “revolting instruments of mechanical coercion” rejected by the “non-restraint” movement of the 1840s and ‘50s. While English asylum superintendents at this time claimed to have abandoned all methods of mechanical restraint, physicians of the 1880s and 1890s re-introduced restraining garments by claiming them to be something else entirely. Strait-jackets (generally known as strait-waistcoats) and handcuffs were replaced with “strong dresses” and “padded gloves”, placed on a relatively small number of patients to prevent self-inflicted injury or the destruction of clothing and other items. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, strait-jackets appear to have returned to some institutions.

Today, it is often assumed that the exhibition of restraining garments will be distressing to viewers: a stark reminder of past cruelties. Participants in the focus group, however, exposed a much more nuanced view of these items. The forthcoming symposium will invite a wider audience – including clinicians, historians, artists and service users – to explore what restraint is, and how (and if) we can ever draw a line between care, cure and control. Following short presentations from a variety of practitioners, the debate will be opened up to the audience.

Tickets are free, but places are limited and must be booked in advance at:

Doors will open at 5pm, with a reception and chance to view the exhibition. The symposium will begin at 6pm, ending by 8pm. The artist will be releasing a book associated with the exhibition later in 2013, funded by the Maudsley Charity.

Location: MRC SGDP Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, 16 De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, SE5 8AF (within the Maudsley Hospital site).

held exhibition photograph

Bedlam in the Old Vic Tunnels

Two artists associated with the Archives and Museum are currently exhibiting in a new show at the Old Vic Tunnels. Bedlam is described as the third and final meeting of minds between Lazarides Gallery and the Old Vic Tunnels, creatively exploring the history of the institution. Like Nell Leyshon’s play at the Globe Theatre two years ago (and as we blogged at that time), the event seeks to explore the parallels between the hospital itself and a “world gone mad”, using the institution’s history as part of a more general critique of society, art, madness and genius.

Much of the work included reflects the interests of Lazarides Ltd, who pride themselves on their popularisation of urban and non-traditional art. The dark, cavernous space of the Old Vic Tunnels suits the material well, lending a haunting quality to the spray-painted canvases and muted video installations. From the near-total darkness of the entry-way, the artworks slowly emerge from the space, the lighting and context lending an uneasy fragility to some of the material, such as Tessa Farmer’s glass and taxidermy sculptures or the ominous presence of Doug Foster and Nachev’s Lidless – a huge weather balloon on which footage of an eye, staring and blinking, is projected.

We were particularly excited, however, by the opportunity to see work by Jane Fradgley and War Boutique. Jane’s striking photographs of the museum’s collection of strong clothing will soon be on display at Guy’s Hospital. Here, however, the large-scale projections emerge with slow beauty on the dark brick walls: ghostly, exquisite and unsettling all at once. These haunting images of late nineteenth and early twentieth century garments of restraint offer a much more complex perspective on mental health care and experiences past and present than the usual stereotypes that fall under the “Bedlam” tag. Jane’s own exhibition, Held, will open in Atrium 2, Guy’s Hospital, on 9 November.

War Boutique’s practice examines forms of conflict – whether physical, psychological or emotional. For Bedlam, he has produced The Noosphere (literally meaning “sphere of the mind”). The sculpture combines Victorian crinoline construction with modern military fabrics, and is based on ideas of rotational therapy for mental illness, which date back to Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia of 1801. The Archives and Museum collection contains a model centrifuge, seemingly made in Bethlem’s workshop at a later date and for unknown reasons. The Noosphere even offers visitors a chance to experience the spinning chair, perhaps providing a new visual perspective on the world beyond it.

Bedlam runs until 21 October at the Old Vic Tunnels, Station Approach Road, London SE1 8SW. Book your free tickets online here.

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.

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.

Jane Fradgley Exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery: ‘Folding Space’ opens 13 April

Jane Fradgley’s first solo show runs at the Bethlem Gallery from 13 April until 7 May 2011. This exhibition of photographic works is informed by a deep fascination with the poetic power of folds and textures. The materials, objects and voids in these images reveal and conceal; the apertures and folds invite the viewer to peer beyond the surface towards other forms and vistas, evoking doorways to the unconscious or passages to another world. Having previously pursued a successful career in fashion, life changes and different states of mind led Fradgley to leave this industry and pursue her passion for photography, which she has used as a cathartic tool, a vehicle for expression and a pathway to professional practice.

The artist explains: “This exhibition is a personal poem encompassing some of my feelings. I see objects and colours as metaphors for my life experience. Themes of slits, holes and folds appear in front of me, buzzing with energy, wishing I capture their existence as clues for inquiry to understanding myself.”

“My story began and continues with creases and scars, baggage and bondage. Sadness and solitude make way for rebirth and possibility. Recent research into the Victorian ‘strong clothing’, at the Bethlem Archive; along with my own thoughts around ‘constraints’ has led to the staged sepia images exploring feelings around freedom,” she explained.

‘Strong clothing’ was a rather euphemistic term used to describe certain forms of restraint used in late nineteenth century asylums. While chains, strait-jackets and similar garments were outlawed during the ‘non-restraint’ movement of the 1840s and ’50s, other methods of ‘mechanical restraint’ were permitted by the Commissioners in Lunacy (the government body who inspected and licensed asylums for much of the nineteenth century). “Strong dresses,” as described by Bethlem Superintendent George Savage in 1888, were “made of stout linen or woollen material, and lined throughout with flannel. The limbs are all free to move, but the hands are enclosed in the extremities of the dress, which are padded. … There are no straitwaistcoats, handcuffs, or what may be called true instruments of restraint in Bethlem.” Savage claimed that, by avoiding recourse to the use of sedatives or padded cells for violent or destructive patients, many “were thus really granted liberty by means of the slight restraint put upon them,” such as strong dresses and padded gloves. Others, however, did not agree, and the “principle of non-restraint” remained an ongoing matter of debate.

The exhibition opens on Wednesday 13 April, from 3 – 6pm, and continues until 7th May.

Open: Wednesday – Friday, and Saturday 16th April & 7th May, 11am – 6pm


The History of the World in 100 Objects

As the British Museum gears up to reveal their 100th object today, we have added several items from our collection to the History of the World site, incorporating elements of the history of madness and mental health treatment from the Hospital’s founding in 1247 up to the present day.

The life-size statues of “Raving and Melancholy Madness,” were displayed at the entrance to Bethlem Hospital from 1676, have already been mentioned on this blog (here and here). As significant London landmarks of their time, these statues became symbolic of “human mental misery” (as a nineteenth century news reporter described it) for visitors from around the globe. As one German travel writer wrote in the late eighteenth century, “These two figures show so much truth and expressiveness that they equal the best sculptures in Westminster Abbey.”

More difficult to present, perhaps, are the eighteenth century restraint devices pictured below: nonetheless, these form a significant aspect of the history of mental health treatment in many areas of the world. Until the Victorian era, hospital patients that threatened violence against themselves or others were physically restrained from acting on their threats by a panoply of devices and garments engineered for the purpose, usually applied temporarily but sometimes for prolonged periods. These gradually fell into disuse upon the advent of the non-restraint movement, which swept the public asylums of England in the 1840s, and were banned altogether from Bethlem in 1853. Interestingly, Bethlem 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. Today, these objects remind of the ongoing debate concerning involuntary detention, seclusion and chemical restraint.

Find us on The History of the World website.

Iron Belt and Wrist Manacles with Keys

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