Sunday, 29 November 2015

Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum


Monks Orchard Rd
Beckenham BR3 3BX

Friday 27 November 2015
It is, I suppose somewhat coincidental that, following our visit to the IWM in the old Bethlem building, we should be in its replacement the following week.

We made our way on a grey day to Beckenham, to visit one of the most interesting and remarkable museums of the project so far.The Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum of the Mind is housed in a fine building, opened by Queen Mary in 1930.

The handsome staircase is framed by two statues by Cibber made for the gates of the Bethlem in London in around 1676. They show the two forms of mental ill health as defined then: raving, who is chained, and melancholia. These two figures - somewhat shocking to the PC generation, introduced us to what makes this place so remarkable.  It is an attempt to explain mental illness in its many forms, partly at least through the medium of the history of treatments.

At the top of the stairs is a simple timeline, which told us that the Bethlem Hospital, founded in Bishopsgate in 1247, was by 1403 housing 'insane' people. It moved to a new site in Moorfields, in 1815 to Lambeth, and in 1930 to its present site.


The Office of National Statistics says that in any year, 1 in 4 people in the UK will have mental health problems, and there was a screen with rolling stories, some by current patients and staff and some, voiced by actors, from patients, staff and visitors from the past. By the way, the notorious visiting by the public to gaze at and bait the 'lunatics' ended in 1770, though VIPs and people of influence could still visit.

Throughout the Museum, there are paintings by patients, including a number by Louis Wain (1860-1939) whose pictures of cats are well known.  His drawing called 'phrenology' introduced a section about this strangest of all (pre-homeopathy!) medical dead ends.

A picture which we found very striking was 'Silent Anger' 1993, made by Elise Warner as she received treatment for her eating disorder. Later, there were some drawings of obsessive hand washing as well.

One of the things which we found very illuminating, but also shocking, was an interactive screen, where all the synonyms you have ever come across for 'madness' scrolled across:  click on any of them, and you got a definition or explanation.  So out of bonkers, barking, potty, off his head, etc etc I chose 'doolally', and learned that the transit camp for soldiers awaiting transport home from India was at Deolalli;  and the boredom and climate and vermin were enough to send people - well - mad.  It was this kind of constant reminder of the stigmas associated with ill health which makes this Museum so thought provoking, in the literal sense.

We saw a group of photographs of inmates taken by Henry Hering in the 1850s.  Apparently Charles Darwin studied some of these photographs when working on'The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals', though of course the long exposure time required then makes any serious expression of emotion rather improbable.

A little empty space with a bench gave time for reflection, and contained a piece of the wall lining of a 'padded cell' with an account of the silence and isolation felt in such a place.  It brought us to a section about freedom and constraint, starting with the forcible restraining, chaining and so on of patients. The many empty bottles in the wall here reminded us that people have always tried the pharmaceutical approach as well.

The modern version of chaining is, I suppose, sectioning against the patient's will.  Here again, we were compelled to think by a brief video and a decision to make.  A young woman, whose weight loss has become extreme and life-threatening, is shown talking to a psychiatrist and a mental health specialist practitioner.  She is not prepared, or rather not able, to offer a plan which will address her problems before it is too late, and so the question is, should she be put in hospital and treated against her wishes.

Next came ECG, with a brief (and for me, pretty unwatchable) bit of film of the treatment being administered, and then some talking heads of practitioners and people who had received the treatment. 

More enjoyable was an opportunity to listen to people explaining 'talking therapies' like mindfulness, family therapy and congnitive behaviour therapy.

There was also a wall of artworks by patients, with an invitation to write our own captions, to remind us how much the words affect the way we look at the picture. The paintings and drawing throughout the Museum are extraordinary.


A little album of 'before' and 'after' photographs from the 19th century left us cynically thinking that brushed hair and a nice bonnet made all the difference to appearances of well being: another stereotype of mentally ill people which survives to this day.


We moved across the landing to the Gallery which, at the moment, has an exhibition of work by Richard Dadd.  No photography is allowed in the exhibition, but you can see some of his works here.  Having studied and shone at the Royal Academy, he went on a long tour of Europe and the Middle East, writing long and informative letters home.  But on his return, he heard voices telling his that his father was actually the devil, and therefore murdered him. He spent the remaining 42 years of his life first in the Bethlem Royal Hospital and then in Broadmoor, before dying of tuberculosis. The exhibition includes watercolours from his foreign travels, as well as imaginative and representative works from his later life.  The certificates that he designed for the Society for Improving the Condition of the Insane (which handed out certificates and sovereigns to exemplars of good care) are also on display.

The Dadd exhibition is on into the new year, and the rest of the Museum is open from Wednesdays to Saturdays.  It's 1.6k from Eden park Station, so about 20 minutes walk, if you don't want to take a bus.


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