phone mail2 facebook twitter play
Bedlam: the asylum and beyond

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond

20 September 2016 Stephanie Brandhuber

Using the infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital as its main focus, The Wellcome Collection’s newest exhibit explores how the experience of mental illness and notions of madness have evolved over the centuries, and shines a light on what the future might hold for the study and development of mental health.

Bedlam has long been recognised as a synonym for chaos, but originally the term arose from a mispronunciation of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, the name of London’s infamous mental asylum. The hospital has changed location three times and with this movement have come shifts in how mental health is seen by society, as well as how it is approached and treated.
 
Through a collection of over 150 objects and archival documents, Bedlam: the asylum and beyond seeks to emphasise the lived experiences of individuals both past and present who have struggled with mental illness. The exhibition has chosen to feature, in particular, examples of patient art with works by Adolf Wölfli, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Richard Dadd on show, as well as works by contemporary artists, including Eva Kot’átkova, Shana Moulton, and Javier Tellez.
 
Speaking about the exhibition, co-curator Mike Jay states that, “the history of the asylum is typically portrayed as the stuff of nightmares to be contrasted with the enlightened present day. But we wanted to take a different approach by drawing out continuities between history and the present to better understand the challenges that face us today and in the future”.
 
“History has shown us that the line between sanity and insanity is impossible to fix, it’s constantly shifting, driven by changes in medical understanding, the law and public health policy all of which have left changing attitudes in society as a whole”.
 
These changing attitudes are clearly defined in the three main sections of the exhibit, which show the development of Bethlem throughout the years: the 18th century madhouse, the 19th century asylum, and the 20th century mental hospital. As Mike Jay explains, “each was a revolutionary departure from the last but they all follow the same trajectory: founded in spiritual optimism and humanitarian reform, and abandoned amidst scandal and failure”.
 
The exhibit opens with an introductory large-scale installation by Eva Kot’átkova called Asylum. Made in 2014, the artist’s work is inspired by conversations with psychiatric patients and features live performers who channel the tensions between protection and restraint that so often grip those with mental illnesses. It is also in this first exhibition area that visitors are introduced to a centuries-old model of alternative care offered by the Flemish town of Geel. Home of the patron saint of mental affliction St Dymphna, those suffering from metal illness in the middle ages were taken in by local families and became boarders, integrating themselves in with the larger community. This tradition has continued on into the present day, and offers the exhibit’s visitors a vision of a successful alternative care model that is in stark contrast to many of the other Western methods that they will encounter in the exhibit.
 
Keeping this utopian version of care in mind, visitors are invited into the first main section of the exhibit, which presents Bethlem as Bedlam, the mythical domain of the mad. Sketches of Bethlem’s first site at Moorfields are displayed alongside a selection of archival materials tracing how madness was first defined by the law. Also on show is a selection of Jacobean plays presenting Bedlam as a place of nightmares and madness, and a special architectural sketch for a new Bethlem building drawn by one of the inmates, James Tilly Mathhews, the first patient to design a psychiatric hospital.
 
The next section explores Bethlem as asylum, re-located to St. George’s Fields in Southwark and then as mental hospital in the 20th Century. Patient art became both therapy and a useful tool for analysis, and the advent of medication to treat mental illness began to change the approach to patient care. In addition to this, the emergence of anti-institutional movements like the democratic psychiatry movement led by Franco Basaglia, coupled with economic pressures, forced residential hospitals to become decommissioned, and again, other methods to help those suffering from mental ailments began to be explored.
 
The final section looks at the ever-expanding marketplace of treatments and therapies in a post-asylum world, from pharmaceuticals to traditional healing methods, spirituality and art therapy, to online help. This final area of the exhibit is dominated by a special commission called Madlove: A Designer Asylum which is a collaborative project with designers Benjamin Koslowski and James Christian, illustrator Rosie Cuningham, and over 300 people who experienced mental distress and who have come together to redesign and re-imagine the asylum as a “safe place to go mad.”
 
It is safe to say that all of us have been affected by mental health in one way, shape, or form, and the Wellcome Collection’s exhibit offers an important and insightful lesson on the evolution of this significant aspect of health and society. Not only will visitors learn about the ways in which our perceptions have changed in Western society, but they will also, hopefully, be encouraged to re-think their own preconceptions of mental health and look towards what the future might hold for this area of healthcare.
 
Bedlam: the asylum and beyond will run from 15th September 2016 – 15th January 2017 at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Free entry. To find out more, visit the Wellcome Collection online.

Tell us what you think

You may also like

This Week 24 – 30 April

This Week 24 – 30 April

Rounding off April, we’re lucky enough to have yet another bank holiday and long weekend to look forward to. Keep yourself busy in London with the…

Euroart Open Studios

Euroart Open Studios

Meet established and up-and-coming artists in their unique workspaces and buy affordable original artworks directly from the makers.

You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred - Zabludowicz Collection

You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred - Zabludowicz Collection

We visited the Zabludowicz collection in North London to take a look at their latest exhibition featuring 14 international photographers, over a 40-year period, who…

Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Don't miss these three unique exhibitions with over 200 artworks celebrating the art of drawing at RWA Bristol.

Picturing Hetty Feather at The Foundling Museum

Picturing Hetty Feather at The Foundling Museum

A family-friendly exhibition exploring how Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather has brought the history of the Foundling Hospital to life.

PROJECT2017 at Gallery Elena Shchukina

PROJECT2017 at Gallery Elena Shchukina

A ten day exhibition of abstract art from emerging and established artists.

‘Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic’ at the National Gallery

‘Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic’ at the National Gallery

In a new installation at the National Gallery, Chris Ofili works miracles by turning water into wool. ‘Weaving Magic’ sees the Turner Prize-winning artist exhibit an…

Jorinde Voigt - Both Sides Now

Jorinde Voigt - Both Sides Now

We spoke to visual artist Jorinde Voigt about her new London exhibition at the Lisson Gallery ‘Both Sides Now’, her ideas about art and how it…

Karigari London

Karigari London

A celebration of handcrafted creations from the talented artisans of India

#LondonTrending at the Guildhall Art Gallery

#LondonTrending at the Guildhall Art Gallery

A brand new exhibition documents the rise of London's artists through a stunning series of limited-edition prints.

Most popular

The Londoners: Portrait of a Working City 1447 - 1980

The Londoners: Portrait of a Working City 1447 - 1980

See the forgotten faces and identities of London's past.
Museums at Night at The Bank of England Museum

Museums at Night at The Bank of England Museum

Enjoy talks, demos and explore this fantastic museum by dark.
The Engine Room: International Sound Art Exhibition

The Engine Room: International Sound Art Exhibition

Celebrating the most exciting sound art being produced right now.
Top 5: Rooftop Bars in London

Top 5: Rooftop Bars in London

From cosy chilled-out spaces to high-end glitzy restaurants overlooking the city’s skyscrapers, we pick out some of the best rooftop bars you should be spending your summer evenings at.
Top 5: Gelato and Ice Cream Parlours in London

Top 5: Gelato and Ice Cream Parlours in London

We may be tempting fate, but we've rounded up freshest frozen treats London has to offer in time for the Spring sunshine
Last Chance to See: The Hunterian Museum

Last Chance to See: The Hunterian Museum

Human toes and maggots buried in reindeer skin? We explore one of the weirdest museums in London before it closes for three years…
House of Burlesque: 2.0

House of Burlesque: 2.0

House of Burlesque push aside the pretence of fluff & feathers in their strong, sassy and thoroughly modern show.
Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Celebrate Drawing with the RWA’s ‘Drawn’ and ‘Lines in a Landscape’ Exhibitions

Don't miss these three unique exhibitions with over 200 artworks celebrating the art of drawing at RWA Bristol.
The Secret Garden - London Children’s Ballet

The Secret Garden - London Children’s Ballet

This May, The Secret Garden is performed by a stunningly talented all-child cast at the Lyric Hammersmith.
How to: Get Your Dog Fix in London

How to: Get Your Dog Fix in London

If you love dogs but you’re not an owner just yet, find out how to get your canine fix in London!

Your inbox deserves a little culture!