Image © Bethlem Museum of the Mind via Facebook

Think You Know Bedlam?

Jenni McGowan

Bethlem Museum of the Mind recently opened in the old Bethlem Royal Hospital, London’s first hospital to specialise in mental health, and the origin of the word Bedlam. London Calling headed down to see how the museum is transforming perceptions of Bedlam, and mental health.

Walking towards the stairs of the repurposed museum building at Bethlem Hospital in Bromley, the statues ‘Raving and Melancholic Madness’ reinforce every horror-story you may have heard about the most notorious asylum in the world.

‘Bedlam’ has become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that the word no longer refers to the place, but to a more general state of chaos and confusion. And although today’s visitor is free to come and go as they please, one can surely imagine the emotional state of a recently detained ‘inmate’ as they looked up at the contorted faces of the imposing statues.

Despite Bethlem’s transformation into a modern psychiatric hospital, the name still retains its infamy as a horrific example of archaic practices towards the ‘mentally and criminally ill’. Quite apart from the talking therapies and prescription drugs that are offered to mental health patients today, the reality for many who entered Bedlam was a life of isolation, neglect and torture.

Some of the most bizarre and disturbing ‘treatments’ trialled at the hospital throughout its long history included ‘Rotational Therapy’, whereby the patient was suspended in a swing from the ceiling and spun at a rate of up to 100 times a minute. The intention was to induce vomiting, because doctors believed that this would rid the body of their insanity.

The diagnoses of the patients varied in severity from ‘acute melancholia’ and ‘ruffianism’ to ‘infanticide’ and ‘homicide’. People with mild learning difficulties were locked up alongside murderers. The hospital was even sometimes used as imprisonment for political opponents and to tarnish the reputations of enemies. Essentially, the hospital became a place to segregate the poor ‘degenerates’ from the rest of society.

This narrative of Bedlam is not an uncommon one but it’s also not the whole story. The opening of Bethlem Museum of the Mind in February 2015, which incorporates the old Bethlem Hospital Museum and Bethlem Gallery, marks an important milestone not only in the history of the hospital itself, but as part of increasing efforts to reinvent damaging notions surrounding mental health.

The museum’s curator, Victoria Northwood, explains that the primary aim of the museum is to acknowledge Bethlem’s troubling past but also to remind the visitor that, as is so often the case with the way that mental health issues are treated in the public domain, the reality is much more nuanced.

Central to the museum is the permanent art collection, which is made up of about 1000 pieces by former and current patients of Bethlem Royal Hospital, providing a privileged insight into their inner-lives. Whilst the whole experience is thought-provoking, this is perhaps the most striking part of the museum, as each piece hints towards the varied, individual and largely unspoken stories of each artist.

The museum also houses temporary exhibitions and puts on a number of different public and private events, including object-handling sessions of artefacts and a range of inter-disciplinary talks by doctors, academics and artists.

In addition to the permanent collections, the museum is currently hosting its second temporary exhibition. “Held” features artist Jane Fradgley’s striking, life-size photographs of ‘strong clothing’ used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, appearing in conversation with the museum’s permanent collection of restraining garments. 

Although, of course, the kind of shackles and straight-jackets that immediately come to mind when we imagine restraining garments were in usage in Bethlem, and can also be seen in the museum today, the kind of restraints that Fradgley focuses in this exhibition offers quite a different perspective from what you might expect.

The quilted clothing in the photographs appear to offer comfort and dignity to their wearer, which Fradgley sees as “an antidote” to the wearer’s anguish. She explains that “wishing to engage with that sense of calm, I explored soft lighting techniques, however some of the garments responded best in the darkness of the shadows, a reminder of the inevitable blackness of mental illness”.

The clothes are not only striking in their size, but in their ability to tell a story. Without any living subject, the images are curiously emotive, hinting to the untold stories of the wearers.

Fradgley’s photographs offer an alternative view of Victorian restraining garments and remind us of the strength of people with mental illnesses, rather than their weaknesses. 

This wonderful little museum is free for all visitors. It is open 10am - 5pm on Wednesday - Friday and on the first and last Saturday of the month. “Held” is open from the 30th May to 21st August. Visit the website for more information.

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