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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.

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