Wellcome Collection: Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond

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Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond at the Wellcome Collection attempts to follow the rise and fall of the mental asylum and explore how it has shaped the complex landscape of mental health today. John O’Donoghue discusses the exhibits that resonated with his personal experience, whilst considering the exhibition as a whole.

An assortment of arranged objects: an arm in a cage, a grotesque face, th image of a young boy with eyes, nose and mouth cut out and replaced with windows and furniture. A young woman looks on in profile from the left-hand side of the image

‘Bedlam’ opens with a large-scale installation, Asylum, by artist Eva Kot’atkova. This 2014 work was inspired by conversations with psychiatric patients and features live performers, evoking the tensions between protection and restraint that thread throughout the exhibition.

We seem to be at a watershed in the history of mental health in this country. The closure of the old Victorian asylums has yielded mixed results, to put it mildly. Yes, they could be places of neglect and abuse, where often patients were put away for most of their lives, taken advantage of, left to rot. But they also afforded sanctuary, the kind of open-ended, humane treatment modern practice seems to have great difficulty in providing.

I am a veteran of the those old ‘asylums’, a patient of Claybury on the borders of East London and Essex; Friern in North London; and Banstead in Surrey. I saw changes during the course of my time in these hospitals, and went along to Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond at the Wellcome Collection wondering how much my experience would chime with the exhibits chosen by curators Mike Jay and Bárbara Rodriguez Muñoz.

Print of architectural plans for Bedlam

James Tilly Matthews, Architectural Plans and Explanatory Notes for a new Bethlem Hospital, courtesy Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Bethlem Royal Hospital – the Bedlam of popular usage – was founded in the 13th century and the exhibition uses the long history of the hospital to tell the story of psychiatry. As you go in to the exhibition Eva Kotátková’s Asylum seems to conjure up the confusion and derangement of admission. A jumble of structures made from a wide variety of materials – mostly wire and black and white photographs – is laid out on a table. There are vague gestures towards confinement and in the claustrophobic setting of the small room I have to say, this was not what I was expecting.

Am image of a sculptural plan consisting of various red triangular shapes around a formed blue series of forms. A turquoise river threads through the piece across a blue city construct

Madlove Designer Asylum by the vacuum cleaner and Hannah Hulls. Part of the Bedlam Exhibiton held at the Wellcome Collection 2016. London

As I went round I came across a number of exhibits that I found informative and intriguing, and quite a few that rather left me where Kotátková’s piece left me. Let me say that I think the idea of using the Bethlem Royal Hospital was a sound one. I learned that the hospital was founded in 1247 by London alderman Simon FitzMary after his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It offered charity and hospitality to the needy, especially those referred to at that time as ‘lunaticke’.

I also learned that St Dymphna is the patron saint of the ‘mentally distracted’ (I have a second cousin called Dymphna) and that her shrine in Geel, Flanders became a site of pilgrimage where the uncured were cared for by local people.

This tangential, sideways context to the Bethlem throws into relief both part of the exhibition’s ambition, and its weakness. For Bethlem has moved a number of times from its original location near the present Liverpool Street Station, to Moorfields, just north of the City of London, in 1675, then to St George’s Fields in Lambeth in 1815, and then finally to Beckenham in 1930.

Rather like some of its inmates it has had a peripatetic existence, moving further away from the centre of an ever-expanding metropolis towards suburbia and open country. But I think the focus of the exhibition is too broad, the space too small to tell it in, and some of the exhibits rather underwhelming.

stylised, geometric painting of the asylum

Adolf Wolfli, Mental Asylum Band-Copse, 1910 © Adolf Wolfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts Berne, Berne

During the course of the exhibition we see how the care and provision of ‘lunatics’, ‘the insane’, ‘the mentally ill’, and ‘those with mental health problems’ has changed. The exhibition does have some telling exhibits. I think I was most struck by the parallels between James Tilley Matthews’ plans for the new Bethlem Hospital established in 1815, and MadLove’s Designer Asylum.

Both are examples, over two hundred years apart, of user-led participation in the construction of caring institutions. Matthews is a fascinating character, and his political paranoia mirrors James Leadbitter’s own political obsessions. Leadbitter is the instigator of MadLove, a project funded initially by Unlimited, and his 3-D multi-coloured model of his user-designed asylum is a splash of vivid and vibrant energy in the rather dully lit and gloomy exhibition overall.

Other exhibits I really liked were Richard Dadd’s portrait of Sir Alexander Morison (1779-1866), the governor of Bethlem, a spectral figure Dadd calls ‘Alienist’, as if his job was to alienate his patients from the society that placed them in his care. The work of other patients was also striking, and I was particularly intrigued to see Adolf Wölfli’s Mental Asylum Band-Copse (1910) – a prolific, driven artist who spent much of his adult life in the Waldau Clinic in Bern.

OIl painting portrait of Sir Alexander Morison

Richard Dadd’s portrait of Sir Alexander Morison (1779-1866)

But some exhibits clanged. Four books by Foucault, Laing, Szasz, and Goffman in a glass case? A bottle of Largactil? A prospectus for Princess Park Manor – Friern transformed into a gated community for twenty-first century metropolitans?

Not enough contextualisation or comment was given to these exhibits, and where was anything on the County Asylums Act 1808, architectural plans of the various styles of buildings built in the Victorian era – like the suburban villas of the 1930s these were ‘scheme’ drawings – the scandals that led to closure?

Perhaps it’s churlish of me to point up these weaknesses, as I see them. Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond offers a space in which to contemplate what has gone before and what could come again, namely the better aspects of care the best of the old asylums aspired to alongside input from the people who could end up using them. Because with so many people experiencing the kinds of stresses and strains that leads to a serious and profound need for ‘time out’, whilst the buildings may largely have gone, the idea hasn’t.

Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond is on show at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE from 15 September 2016 – 15 January 2017. For more information go to https://wellcomecollection.org/bedlam

For information about Accessibility, Access Tours and Discussions within the gallery, please go to https://wellcomecollection.org/visit-us/accessibility

John O’Donoghue is the author of Sectioned: A Life Interrupted (John Murray, 2009) awarded Mind Book of the Year 2010.