Amid last year’s mental health scandals – including spending cuts, insensitive comments from politicians, and crisis care failures – there was a big step forward in tackling the stigma of psychological illness. It came from a newly-opened museum and charity: Bethlem Museum of the Mind, in Beckenham, Kent, recently nominated for the 2016 Museum of the Year award.
Yes, the name might sound familiar. Bethlem is the fourth site of the notorious hospital better known as Bedlam. You won’t find power-crazed doctors leaving patients in chains – a stereotypical mental image associated with the ‘madhouse’ of earlier centuries – but you will find a place where modern mental illness is explained. What’s more, entry is free, and it’s open to everyone.
I visited late last year with my Dad, both of us unsure of what to expect but carrying a personal interest in mental health (see my post on travelling with depression if you’re curious). We’d also watched a special Time Team episode, The Madness of Bedlam, and being in situ was even more illuminating.
History of Bedlam
A timeline at the top of the double staircase told us the hospital started life in London’s Bishopsgate in 1247, and the first six ‘insane’ patients were documented in 1403. In 1676 the institution moved to Moorfields, where 120 ‘pauper lunatics’ could be housed, but by 1815 it was time for another move.
The next site was St. George’s Fields, Southwark (today it’s the Imperial War Museum building), and an official title of State Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Relocation to Kent, in 1930, meant Bethlem was the first hospital built using the villa system, with separate buildings and gardens for each ward.
One of the most crucial points for visitors to understand is what ‘madness’ meant. If you suffered from epilepsy, syphilis or post-natal depression, your symptoms could see you taken to Bedlam. If your relatives wanted to grab your inheritance, or a love rival wanted you out of the way, they just had you committed.
Visitors in the Past
Two 17th century statues, called Raving and Melancholy, rest on plinths inside the museum lobby. These classical allegories, which once greeted visitors at the Moorfields gates of Bedlam, were designed to represent the main types of perceived madness at the time.
The 17th century wasn’t a great time to be treated for any health problem, let alone something psychological, but Bedlam was busy. Aside from patients, there were also visitors dropping in to experience a madhouse, in the same way they would have gone to a freak show or to the latest hanging at the gallows.
By 1770, a ticketing system was introduced for visitors. In 1796, Joseph Addison poured scorn on the people who visited Bedlam for fun, ‘who seemingly take a pleasure in tormenting and insulting those fallen objects!’. He called on them to think about the humanity of the patients (‘thou too art a man’), however the staff could have done with this lecture, too – doctors, especially the Monro medical dynasty featured in the Time Team programme, could be cruel. Dr. Thomas Monro was considered to be “wanting in humanity” and had to resign in 1816.
Unfortunately, most of the exhibits date from the 19th century onwards, like the ‘Patented Magneto-Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases’, a phrenology head, and official photos aiming to tie body language or facial expressions to diagnoses.
More recent exhibits included toys and games which psychiatrists used to assess children, and examples of the Inkblot Test (also known as the Rorschach Test). There was even a padded wall and cell door, which made for uncomfortable but essential viewing. Not far away, an electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) machine sat behind glass, reminding me and my dad of the haunting ECT scenes in Homeland.
I would have loved to have seen older artefacts, even replicas or scans of documents, but they were few and far between. One of the most interesting older pieces was Dr John Monro’s notebook, with meticulously recorded case notes from 1766.
Bedlam Patients in Focus
‘Before’ and ‘After’ photos stopped us in our tracks: inmates were photographed on arrival, often with wild hair and wilder eyes, a look of genuine fear upon their faces. The ‘after’ photos, on release, showed typical Victorian composure. Dad wondered if the photos were exaggerated to show maximum improvement at face value. Letters from patients and their families also tug at the heartstrings, showing both recovery and relapse.
Contemporary stories really bring the museum to life, especially as they’re told in an accessible way, through digital displays, sound bites or written accounts. The stories aren’t always positive, so it doesn’t feel biased towards the hospital, and every person’s experience is different. Diagnoses range from anorexia to personality disorders and schizophrenia.
One video involves a patient and her mother talking to a therapist about whether it’s the right time to be discharged from hospital. At the end, viewers are asked to consider whether they would discharge her or not. It’s immersive but not exploitative (presumably the participants are actors).
Art and Craft as Therapy
Patient artwork is dotted around the museum. It’s intensely personal, but often uplifting. Having endured six weeks of totally useless outpatient ‘expressive art’ sessions (when we sat in silence for an hour and coloured in), I could see this was much more therapeutic.
Art has been used as patient therapy since the 19th century, as a way of expressing yourself and exploring emotions at different stages of treatment. Because the artwork here can be hard-hitting, a completely unconnected section in the middle of the room gives visitors somewhere to take a mental and physical break. The paintings in this area are calming landscapes – nothing challenging. We both felt this sensitive approach was spot-on.
We were lucky enough to visit on an Object Handling day, getting to see pieces made by the patients or used on them, such as restraint attachments for shoes. A carved wooden piece made by one patient had an intricate pattern, but the patient had misjudged the amount of wooden flowers s/he could create, and one was half-finished. I couldn’t help imagining their frustration.
Before we left, a trip to the gift shop was in order. Merchandising a mental health museum can’t be easy – much like merchandising Colditz Castle or the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora – because it’s so entwined with human emotions. Luckily there were no baseball caps saying ‘I escaped from Bedlam!’, or the Alice in Wonderland quote, ‘We’re all mad here!’. Instead, we found simple mugs, pens, books and postcards, plus jewellery made by current patients.
Whilst I was worried about the museum being cold and clinical, and I suspect my dad was worried it would be upsetting, we were both pleasantly surprised. Human interest stories definitely helped bring home the reality of living with a mental health condition, and different therapeutic approaches were explained.
So much time and effort has been poured into this place, especially through its volunteers, but it deserves more visitors. I really hope Bethlem wins Museum of the Year and achieves recognition.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind is found in Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent, BR3 3BX. Opening hours are 10:00-17:00 (last entry 16:30), Wednesday-Friday and the first and last Saturday of every month. Pre-booked groups (10+ people) can also visit from Monday-Tuesday. Check the website for upcoming special events.
Entry is free, as is car parking, but you may need to park far away from the museum building, as this is a busy working hospital. It’s also on the 198 or 119 bus route from East Croydon Station. As the museum is a charity, please consider making a donation when you visit, or buying something from the gift shop.