Two portrayals of mental health in museums – Bethlem Museum of the Mind and the Wellcome Collection – October 2016

In recent months I have visited two exhibitions on mental health and the history of Bethlem Royal Hospital or ‘Bedlam’ as it has popularly passed into parlance. There is much cross-over between the two and sharing of resources so I have decided to take a look at both side by side.

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Bethlem Museum of the Mind re-opened in 2015 in the 1930s hospital administration building

‘The Weight of History’ is on at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, on the site of a working mental health hospital, from 27th July – 18 November 2016. Located in Beckenham, South London it is my local museum. Shortlisted for Art Fund Museum of the Year you can read a blog I wrote about the re-opening of the museum here. The other exhibition is ‘Bedlam – the asylum and beyond’ on at the Wellcome Collection in central London, from 15th September – 15 January 2017.

Both exhibitions are free but differ massively in scale and size, the Wellcome has worked closely with the Museum of the Mind and brought many objects from their collection to a wider audience in London. Both exhibitions draw on art and artefacts to ultimately tell the story of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and its many different incarnations and locations.

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Raving and Melancholy Madness, 17th century statues by Caius Gabriel Cibber that stood outside Bethlem Hospital from 1676-1815

‘The Weight of History’ at the Bethlem takes its starting point from the founding of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1247 as the Priory of St Mary of Bethlem. It looks at the long history of the institution, using objects and art to tease out the tension of a venerable institution which has a primary function as a state of the art mental healthcare provider. The Wellcome takes a wider and broader look, not just at the history of ‘Bedlam’, but compares methods of mental healthcare across place and time, reaching out an eye to Europe it also looks at the perspective of patients who have experience of mental health distress.

Holbein the younger, Hans, c.1497-1543; Henry VIII (1491-1547)
Holbein the younger, Hans; Henry VIII (1491-1547); Bethlem Museum of the Mind;
The Committee Room at St. George’s Fields, c.1910 copyright Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

‘The Weight of History’ at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind has a fairly simple display, there are not hundreds of objects to view. It always surprises me, I am used to visiting large exhibitions and trying to process lots of objects, words and feelings as I wander round exhibitions from the larger museums in London. Once I have adjusted to a different speed and pace of attack it gives me time to contemplate objects much more. I stand opposite a large portrait of Henry VIII, from around 1497-1543, it is one of the oldest pieces in the collection and hung in a number of the Hospital’s boardrooms from the site at Moorfields, to St George’s Fields and finally to the current site at Monks Orchard Road in Beckenham. There is a fantastic photograph of the picture in-situ on the Bethlem website in the St George’s Fields committee room around 1910 and you just get this sense not only of history and tradition but a governance structure a world a way from what the ‘inmates/patients/service users’ would experience.

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Lots to see at the Wellcome Collection

In contrast the Wellcome exhibition hits you with 100s of artefacts and artworks, telling the story of the early asylum. The exhibition uses architectural exhibition design to evoke the different physical settings and ethos of the the 18th century site at Moorfields depicted by William Hogarth, in the much shown ‘The Rake’s Progress’ 1763, the St George’s Fields site that now houses the Imperial War Museum and finally the 1930s ‘modern’ hospital in Beckenham.

Eva Kotakova – ‘Asylum’

The Wellcome puts art centre stage, on entering the exhibition you come face to face with Eva Kotakova’s ‘Ayslum’ it is a brave way to start, I found it disorientating and confusing. Kotakova’s 2014 work was inspired by conversations with psychiatric patients, evoking tensions between protection and restraint, looking closer I had initially missed the live performers that take part in the installation. Whilst I struggle to get a sense of the work there was something about the shadows it left that has stayed with me, the way mental health and well being can leave shadows on your life.

Shadows on my mind.

At the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, ‘The weight of history’ works because you can feel it in this place, when you step onto the grounds of the hospital you can’t but be aware of the contrast between modern hospital and a museum that offers connections to the past. A past that can be difficult to look at. You get a sense of those traditions with the objects they have chosen, but my favourite moment was coming across Jodine Williams’ photograph, selected as a finalist in the photo competition as part of the Art Fund Museum of the Year competition. Perhaps not intended as part of the original exhibition, to come across it in a quiet corner says so much about the surprising nature of visiting a museum about mental health on the site of a working hospital. It allows individual voices to break through.

Copyright Jodine Williams

There are many highlights in the Wellcome Collection exhibition, it was a joy to see Richard Dadd’s portrait of Sir Alexander Morison on loan from National Museums Scotland. Morison was a pioneer of psychiatric medicine and spent 17 years as a consultant at the Bethlem. Dadd’s skill permitted him a certain freedom as an artist and many of the governors at the Bethlem encouraged his work.

Sir Alexander Morrison (1779-1866) by Richard Dadd (1817-1886)

It is the nature of art and mental health that is a strong theme in the exhibition. Art as therapy, as expression but perhaps most interestingly art as a form of communication and even protest. I found Jakob Mohr’s work a powerful expression of the artist’s distress. I also thoroughly enjoyed the tapestry of Mary Frances Heaton bringing expression of feeling and intent to a whole different level with her sampler letter of protest.

Jakob Mohr – El Mordversuch (Attempted Electrical Murder) 1910. Mohr was confined in a psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg. He believe he was being attacked by destructive electric currents or ‘waves’.
Mary Frances Heaton was admitted to Wakefield asylum in 1837 suffering from epilepsy and ‘delusions’ of an affair with Lord Seymour. She never accepted her diagnosis and over the years sewed intricate samplers detailing her version of events, including this letter to Queen Victoria protesting against her confinement.

Having worked with the Bethlem Museum as part of their consultation into displaying challenging objects before their 2015 re-opening, I was really pleased to see Jane Fradgley’s photographs showing restraint clothing on display at the Wellcome. Having held a similar, if not the same dress, it is quite hard to describe how such a simple object can hold such power. The dress is utilitarian and so heavy, yet with a bizarre nod to feminity with the frills at the collar, it is an important inclusion.

Jane Fridley’s photographs of restraint clothing.
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Restraint dress on display at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind – emotive objects

I felt there was a missed narrative at the Bethlem Museum exhibition, but not an easy one to convey. You can see the history and hereditary of the institution, brought out by Sue Burbidge’s work ‘The Bethlem Honours Cabinet’ which list the governors names. There is the continuity of a role passed within families, the names of James, John and Thomas Monro, physicians at the hospital. But what really interests me is the legacy and hereditary of mental illness in patients and their families. I wonder how many families saw a number of relatives who were patients at Bedlam. Some mental health conditions may have hereditary links, I wonder what role that played in family traditions. Were those stories kept quiet and hushed up in a society that did not understand mental health conditions. There are deep parallels which would be fascinating to bring out and expand the patient voice in this exhibition.

Although there are undoubtably highlights, I felt a number of small niggles at the Wellcome. In some areas the lighting was a barrier to the artefacts and some of the object text displayed was incredibly difficult to read, even for those with good eyesight. Ultimately I felt the Wellcome exhibition is actually trying to do too much. It is looking at the history of Bedlam as a place, its various incarnations, its architecture and societal impressions of mental health. It is trying to look at comparisons of mental health care in Europe, it is trying to understand the role of art and expression in the mental health context, it is trying to look at treatments and medicinal, therapeutic and psychiatric. It is trying to re-imagine the asylum of the future as well.

In trying to cover all these areas the exhibition becomes overwhelming, treating some topics too lightly where an expansion of subject would have been most welcome in particular how different societies have viewed those placed within their care. I wanted to know more how Bedlam was viewed in society, a look at Oliver Cromwell’s Porter, Daniel, who spent time in Bedlam, to explore more of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the character of Tom O’Bedlam –

Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragèd,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagèd
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam,
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty,
And now I sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

I wanted to hear more of the Bedlam Ballads, having heard them sung at the opening of the Bethlem back in 2015. To expand on the artwork that takes the Bedlam as its inspiration, it would have been good to see the work of Grayson Perry and David Hockney referenced. How even today in modern culture the concept of Bedlam is repeated, taking a look at the viral photograph that led to many referencing a scene from a Rake’s Progress and Bedlam in Christmas 2015.

The exhibition talks of the the move away from restraint clothing to more enlightened times, and yet spit hoods feature in our news bulletins and restraint holds are still taught and commonly used. If we are going to look at the modern context of mental health do we not need to look how mental health issues are sidelined when the threat of a terrorism event becomes paramount.

Mental health is a huge and complex subject, whilst we are coming to terms with treatments in the past, I am not sure we have quite come to the enlightened plateau of helping people with mental health conditions that we are aiming for.

It is fantastic for the Wellcome to work so closely with the Bethlem and bring their collections to a wider audience. This is a subject that is not just historical, our thoughts and impressions are very much rooted in the here and now and are very relevant. There is a continuity of care happening still at Bethlem, for all the changing terminology and treatments at the end of the day there are still people in need of help.

Arguably for me the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is the place to visit, as good as the Wellcome exhibition is, I would always ask you to visit there first. If you really want to get an understanding of this topic, take the opportunity of going on to the grounds of a working mental health hospital, you can feel the history more potently than any exhibition can express.


‘The Weight of History’ – Bethlem Museum of the Mind – 27 July – 18 November 2016

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond – Wellcome Collection – 15 September 2016 – 15 January 2017

There is a varied programme of events running alongside the exhibition, you can find out more here –

An interesting blog on the Bethlem Boardroom


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