The Wellcome Trust’s current exhibition, Bedlam: the asylum and beyond, is a meaningful journey through the establishment’s history that manages to focus on the patient’s lives and experiences without feeling too voyeuristic.
To exhibit the artwork and artefacts from Bethlem hospital is to subvert centuries of isolation towards those who (allegedly) struggled with their mental health. Certain pieces are so moving that they feel like communication beyond the grave–a communication with the outside world that was once muted. I’ve long felt drawn towards the 19th-century history of the asylum in both Britain and America, and feel very inspired by the Art Brut (Outside Art) movement to come out of the 1960s and 70s asylums and hospitals. Perhaps, speaking personally, this is in part because I think about whether my family, or whether I, would have spent time in one of these institutions. And because reading people’s ‘cases’, seeing their photographs and their artwork, is to bear witness to a raw expression of life. The gap in time, whether that be 150 or 50 years, can feel like a buffer–a protection–against their often haunting familiarity.
‘Curating’ Bedlam is a complicated task. On the one hand, voices, experiences, and lives that were largely kept secret, on the grounds that they were ‘sick’, ‘different’, or ‘dangerous’, are finally being heard. And on the other, the ‘contents’ of the show are incredibly private. At times, pieces in the exhibit reveal a person at their most vulnerable. Even much of the artwork was not created for ‘public’ consumption.
Yet the passage of time, inevitably, forces open our privacy; lays bare our lives. And maybe part of what feeds our interest in lives lived is a form of voyeurism. But taken in a less sinister light, I think it’s a need, and a desire, to connect with people irrespective of time and place. I think, ultimately, it’s wonderful that the lives of Bedlam’s inhabitants are celebrated, not forgotten. So long as we don’t forget that only fragments are left behind.
Beyond the asylum
The contemporary aspect of the exhibit, in my opinion, was the most disappointing. What filled the space felt like a missed opportunity to look at the current relationship of our society’s treatment of mental health–and what provisions are in place to support and care.
The end of the asylum–while in many ways was an act of ‘progress’ and freedom—is complicated. It has yet to be replaced with a thorough, widespread, system of care.
[Madlove Asylum, A project by Hannah Hull & The Vacuum Cleaner. Design by Benjamin Koslowski & James Christian (Projects Office). Illustration by Rosemary Cunningham]
The ‘Madlove Asylum’–the finale of the Bedlam exhibit which accumulated the experiences of 432 people who had experienced ‘mental distress’ to workshop a hypothetical ‘utopian mental health hospital’–feels too trivial.
We are unlikely to return to the ‘asylum’—a word that currently holds only negative associations—so what are we are we actually putting in place? Care in the community is not enough. In a 2014 survey, 45% of England’s homeless population had been ‘diagnosed with a mental health problem’, while 80% had experienced ‘mental health issues’. The two are inextricably linked. We are currently failing those suffering from severe mental health issues in a way that is comparable to the 19th-century asylum because instead of putting people away we are essentially turning them onto the street.
So let us use the history of Bedlam not to congratulate ourselves on how far we have come and what progress we have made, but to look at what we are still failing to understand, treat with compassion, and support.