Secrets of scenes of London’s oldest psychiatric hospital

September 17, 2016 10:00 am

Images of patients taken by a photographer who believed it was therapeutic for them to see themselves in pictures. Photo / Wellcome Library,

Some think they have dangerous spikes sticking out of their body or are so fragile they cannot be touched.
Others fear the empty space between letters or imagine their body will break when they move, instead rolling down hallways “like a stone” or slithering upstairs just to move around.
The haunting real-life testimony is an insight into what life was like for patients at a psychiatric hospital researched by Eva Kot’átková.
It’s featured at the opening to a thought-provoking new exhibition charting the story of through unique insights into London’s oldest psychiatric hospital still operating today.

Images of patients taken by a photographer who believed it was therapeutic for them to see themselves in pictures. Photo / Wellcome Library, London

Bedlam: The asylum and beyond features real-life accounts from patients, doctors, politicians and artists about life at Bethlem – a psychiatric institute built in 1247 and dubbed “bedlam” for the visions of “secular hell” it conjured up that became entrenched in popular culture.

Other items include delicately embroidered letters to Queen Victoria done by a woman who had delusions of an affair. Drawings submitted by “incurable lunatic” James Tilly Matthew detail plans for a new building when the asylum was forced to move location.It contains drawings, artwork and plans of patients and officials over the years including that of James Norris – who was chained to the wall by his neck for more than a decade before being discovered by visiting officials.
The first series of plans submitted by a patient show his vision of a place where patients could walk around, tend vegetable plots and care for the elderly in an early incarnation of community care.
It’s a flashback to a time when being “out of one’s wits” was a legal status rather than a medical one with those deemed “insane” given protections but also stripped of their rights.
Glass slides show the facade of Bethlem alongside accounts of how the asylum was opened as a tourist attraction with rowdy and drunk crowds passing through each weekend.
Curator Mike Jay said the London institution which has moved three times over centuries is the perfect way to tell the story of changing attitudes to mental health.
“History shows us that the line between sanity and insanity is impossible to fix,” he said.
“It’s constantly shifting driven by changes in medical understanding, the law and public health policy – all of which reflect changing attitudes in society as a whole. It’s an immensely complex story but Bethlem hospital – London’s great asylum – has witnessed it all and provided us with our narrative thread.”

Bethlem stitched into the lining of a straight jacket in a picture by Jane Fradgley from 2012.

While the pictures of straitjackets and X-ray machines are a reminder of how far attitudes to mental health have come, it’s a pertinent issue given the depression epidemic which is estimated to effect more than a third of teen girls in the .
Beyond Blue estimates three million Australians are living with depression or anxiety in an example of how focus on mental health has changed from one that needs to be kept private to be brought out in the open and discussed.
“The history of the asylum is typically portrayed as the stuff of nightmares to be contrasted with the enlightened present day,” Mr Jay said. “But we wanted to take a different approach by drawing out the continuities between history and the present to better understand the challenges that face us today and in the future.
“As we emerge into the present we find a world in which mental health has become everyone’s story; a preoccupation of modern culture at large. In the wake of the asylum we no longer believe that mental health can be quarantined from the world yet each of the asylum’s incarnations has left its mark.”
In an attempt to “springboard” the conversation into the 21st century, the exhibition also includes plans for a “madlove” utopian asylum where people have access to tree houses, kittens, an ocean and a bakery. Interactive exhibits and a Twitter bot Empathy Deck complete the multimedia experience.
Wellcome Collection curator Barbara Rodriguez Munoz said the exhibition was designed to re-imagine what the concept of asylum means in the modern world.

This magazine was also produced by Bethlem residents. Photo / Wellcome Library, London.

“Through the rise and fall of the mental asylum run a series of recurring questions that we struggle to address: The balance between biomedical and psychosocial approaches to therapy, the tension between protection and restraint and the conflict between keeping a safe haven from the world or reintegrating people from society,” she said.
“We believe that understanding these pendulum swings in the history of mental health can give us clues to navigate the world that has succeeded it.”
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