I am in a peculiar position of having a long, long connection of sorts with Bethlem Hospital and museum, but I have only visited the site recently and only found out about the museum a couple a years ago. I lived about 15 minutes away from the Bethlem Hospital for 27 years, I have, like all local residents been very aware of it’s presence. You only need to do a quick search of the local newspaper to see the kind of headlines and impressions that local people have been given. Sadly they are mainly negative, “Bethlem Hospital secure unit incident attended by police and firefighters”, “Dangerous man still missing from Bethlem”, “No to mental health unit expansion.”
The Bethlem Hospital has a long history, founded in 1247 and originally sited at Bishopsgate, it moved to Moorfields in the 17th century and then on to St George’s Fields, Southwark in the 19th century, now the site of the Imperial War Museum. We know of the nickname for the hospital ‘Bedlam’ a term now synonymous with chaos and disorder. We all know the stories of visitors who paid to see the inmates in the 16th century and we are familiar with Hogarth’s portrayal of the hospital in ‘A Rake’s Progress’ which can be found in the Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Fewer people know of the hospital’s final move to the leafy green suburb of Beckenham in the borough of Bromley in the 1930s, and even fewer people know of the wealth of objects, history and art in their hospital’s archive and gallery. Not surprising when you see where the museum was original housed. A small outbuilding inadequate for storage or visitors, the museum appeared more as an afterthought than a welcoming place to visit.
It was interesting to listen to Victoria Northwood, head of the archive and museum, at a preview to the museum opening. She talked of the consultation process, which looked into the reasons why people had not visited the museum before. There were numerous misapprehensions: that you had to pay to visit (not true); and that you had to make an appointment (not true). There was a general misunderstanding that you can come onto the site of what is a working hospital and perhaps an element of fear too.
I first came to the museum back in 2013 to a consultation session that was part of the development of the ‘new’ museum. Called ‘Confronting the Collections’, I was part of a small groups of curators, former staff and patients of the hospital who looked at challenging objects in the collection and discussed how they could be displayed. We were shown manacles, handcuffs and restraint clothing, part of the hospitals history, all very, very emotive objects. I will not forget being shown a restraint dress which we were allowed to hold, it went from the neck down to the floor, a blue material, the arms could be tied at the back. It was incredibly heavy, padded, sturdy, well made, but what struck us were the frills around the neck. A dress for such a stark purpose, to prevent harm (self harm and harm to others), utilitarian and yet this strange concession to feminism or fashion I am not sure which.
We were debating how to show these objects, we agreed the troubling history of mental health treatment shouldn’t be hidden away, but how to display them on the site of a working hospital? Visitors may be coming to see family and relatives on site, they may have recently received diagnosis and treatment. How would they feel to see such challenging objects? It made me think about museums and objects more than at any other time, their power and importance. You can see all the objects we looked at on display in the museum, but you have the option to engage with them or not. They are placed onto the back of the text panel and you can view them in a mirror, an interesting way to allow visitors to ‘opt into’ seeing them.
The session made me incredibly eager to return and see how these objects were finally displayed. I came to a preview a few weeks before the museum opened and my impressions on visiting could not have been more different to my visit of the old museum site. The new museum is placed slap bang in the heart of the hospital, in the original 1930s administration building.
It is such a beautiful building, I could write a post on the design alone – the little details, the sweeping front staircase, the fireplaces and doors are stunning. It was fascinating to hear in the opening speeches of its previous existence as a rabbit warren of NHS offices, but now the space is open and light and in a way calming too. Here is a new museum that also enabled an old building to be reborn, it is a wonderful thing.
When you step into the entrance you are met by the 17th century statues of ‘Melancholy and Raving Madness’ by Caius Gabriel Cibber, they were originally placed outside the Moorfields site and have traveled with the hospital at each move. They are worth a trip on their own, my only niggle is there didn’t seem to be any interpretation to tell you about the artist and history when you first come in. But they certainly spurred me on to find out more about them. The are powerful objects, a fitting portal and gateway to the Museum of the Mind. I can’t imagine how they must have seemed to patients entering Moorfields, how intimidating and frightening. But here at the museum they have taken on a new identity, it is like leaving the old ways of treatment and preconceptions behind, alighting the stairs to more enlightened times.
At the top of stairs there is a timeline, whilst it recognises the history of the hospital, this museum is not about the story of one institution. It is so much more than that, it is the story of mental health, diagnosis, treatment, outcomes, our understanding of the mind and preconceptions of terminology. The new site has the luxury of a beautifully fitted permanent and temporary exhibition spaces. On my preview tour I got overly excited by a brand new storage area and conservation labs, we were also shown a study space and education space.
I was overwhelmed on my first visit, not everything was finished, workmen were still drilling, dust sheets hid some sections and displays. But this was what a new museum was like, fresh and hopeful and optimistic. I am trying to fight the closure of my local museum and to see what investment and reinvigoration can bring to a museum, to see what my museum has missed out on by the council pulling out of a Heritage Lottery Bid bid was incredibly hard. I had very mixed emotions, but it has made me see how important this transformation has been. Planned since I believe the 1980s it has taken years of campaigning and hard work to get to this point, but what a fantastic achievement.
The achievement comes from more than creating a new museum, the Museum of the Mind is so much more than objects and art. It is trying to open up mental health from every angle, our understanding of the history of treatment and what it means to get a diagnosis. The space is also about access to information. I stop and pick up a handset to listen to two people talking about how they felt when they finally received a diagnosis of a mental health condition. The words they used ‘acceptance’, ‘stereotype’, ‘ticking a box to get the help I needed’, struck some strong parallels with me and my daughter’s autism diagnosis that took my completely by surprise.
In another section there was a computer you could sit down and access the database from the Royal College of Psychiatrists to get straight no-nonsense explanations about different diagnosis. This is not just a place to learn about our past, but a place to help with the here and now. I sat down on a stool and saw another handset that explained Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Family Therapy, things I have gone through with my daughter. I was eager to listen, to hear about something I have had personal experience of.
You realise quite quickly that this is not just a museum but an information space, it is a hugely important social space to helps us understand mental health, not just where we have come from, but where we are heading too. It is about a new relationship with mental health that puts information at the heart of a working mental health hospital where it is needed the most.
My one negative from my visit is that with the step away from a traditional museum many of the objects lack any interpretation. Sadly they have been used more as window dressing, the design ideal has slightly taken away from the fact that objects without any information at all can lose they meaning beyond aesthetic design. There were many objects I was desperate to know more about, but hopefully when fully open volunteers will be able to assist with questions and enquiring minds.
I can forgive this niggle because the Museum of the Mind is a special place trying to achieve something very important. There has been so much talk about ‘Museums changing lives’, if you really want to see how that can be achieved you have to visit this place. Here is a museum that is transcending the history of objects and interpretation of the past, it is bravely aiming for something much more.
As I left an artwork caught my eye, powerful, sad, fraught with emotion, an image that is all too familiar to me. A young girl, long thin arms and legs, crouched on the floor, head tucked in, arms wrapped around crossed legs, protective, shutting out the world. With art you don’t always need any interpretation, but you can feel so much emotion from a line of chalk, the brush of paint. The Bethlem’s art collections are a powerful jewel in their diverse collections. It is an image that will stay with me long after my visit.
What I have learnt in the last few years is that you have no idea what the future holds, mental health is a fragile, difficult thing, you never know when you might need to ask for help. It is very hard to understand how crushing mental health problems can be, how there are no quick fixes, no magic wands. When I think back to my early impression of this site and the hospital here, when I look at those negative articles and local prejudices you realise how incredibly lucky we are to have this place. It is a hospital and a museum, not just for patients and visitors, but for the local people too.
The Museum of the Mind is a museum that is fighting fear and misconceptions, it is not just a museum but a gallery, a social space and a hub at the heart of a centuries old story. I cannot think of a more important museum that I have visited, it will draw people from far and wide. Perhaps the most important visitors will be the ones like me who live a few minutes away, I can’t believe it has taken me so long to visit, but I won’t leave it so long to return now I have been welcomed in.
To find out more please visit the Bethlem Museum of the Mind website
OPENING TIMES 10:00 – 17:00 visiting is free
Pre-booked groups only:
Monday – Tuesday
Open to public:
Wednesday – Friday
(except public holidays)
(first and last of the month)