Gent, Belgium: Dr. Guislain Museum

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Oh, Dr. Guislain.  Not only did you revolutionise psychiatry in Belgium, but you also lent your name to one hell of a museum.  If only you’d looked a bit more like a young Joseph Banks (of Endeavour fame, and my historical crush of the moment.  Seriously, click the link, he was hot!), and a bit less like Benjamin Franklin with more hair and mutton chops crossed with the Quaker Oats guy, I think we could have really had something.  I suppose I’ll have to just content myself with your superb museum.

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I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of Gent (other than it was a cloth-making town, which I only know courtesy of the Wife of Bath and her “wandering by the way”) as we specifically came for Dr. Guislain, and left afterwards without so much as a friet (don’t worry, I had paprika Hula Hoops in the car).  The museum is located within a working mental hospital housed in an imposing Victorian edifice of masterful brickwork. We found the entrance down a long outdoor corridor that runs next to a courtyard, where some of the patients were enjoying the sunny afternoon.  Admission was a mere 6 euros, which was very fair considering the size of the place.

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When I saw pictures of it online, they were all of one room of the museum, so I imagined it would be quite small, when in fact, it was positively palatial, spread out over two floors on each side of the building.  We began with the contemporary art collection of the Foundation Frances, which was arranged in two huge rooms.  The collection essentially explored man and the body, and as such featured some rather intense pieces dealing with brutality and animalistic tendencies.  I know I bash modern art a lot on here, but this stuff wasn’t bad, save for Tracey Emin’s crappy piece which was literally just some words written on a wall. Oh, and some of her used tampons.  Frankly, I just don’t see her appeal.

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Fortunately, around the corner, I spotted a re-creation of an early psychiatric ward, and the interactive pod pictured above, which is far more my type of thing.  The pod was a prototype of a device that could take a DNA sample, perform a brain scan, and administer medical tests, all whilst you’re comfortably ensconced on a plush leather chair.  Obviously, this one didn’t actually do brain scans or DNA testing, but the chair still tipped back, and you could at least take some reaction time tests in it, so it was nonetheless good fun.  The pod was part of a display on modern medicine which segued back into a mysterious hallway that we weren’t entirely sure we were supposed to be walking down.

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All the lights were off, and the rooms to either side were probably used for some kind of learning activities, but as they were empty, gave off the air of a creepy funhouse.  In one room, we even found some funhouse style mirrors, and another just had a line of sinks and an antique wheelchair.  It was kind of spooky.  At the end of the hallway, there was another art display, this time quite playful, as the art was created by a man with mental disabilities, and made up of different toys arranged together.  I enjoyed it.

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The floor above finally saw us enter Dr. Guislain’s permanent collections on the history of psychiatry.  This not only told the story of the Guislain Hospice and Dr. Guislain himself, but offered a history of the mentally ill going back to medieval times, illustrated throughout with some pretty wonderful (and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously) objects.  For example, pictured above is a collection of chains, and a harness contraption for conveying patients into bed, and below is a dunking chair, and a padded, covered bed, because nothing calms people down like forcibly dunking them into freezing water and then making them sleep in a dark, claustrophobia-inducing bed.

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This section was almost unbelievably massive.  I kept thinking we’d gotten to the end, and lo and behold, there’d be another room awaiting us.  I must have said, “It just keeps going!” about fifty times (almost as much as my other catchphrase, “I need a wee!”  I’m like a five year old sometimes).  The Dr. Guislain collection, in addition to being fascinating, was also surprisingly moving, as it featured pictures of some of the patients, as well as telling their ultimate fate (which was sometimes horrible), and even a few early videos where visibly uncomfortable patients were made to demonstrate their conditions before a crowd of onlookers.  Dr. Guislain would have been long dead by this point, but regardless, whilst the Guislain Hospice was a big step above chaining people up, conditions here clearly weren’t ideal.

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When we at long last reached the end, we discovered a small radiology collection, and the two fine wax figures shown above.  I can’t even recall who they were meant to be, maybe Dr. Guislain and his wife?  Or Pierre and Marie Curie since it was radiology?  Or maybe even Roentgen and his wife (the one who posed for the famous X-ray of her hand with wedding ring)?  I guess I should really pay more attention to signs, and not be distracted by hilarious wigs.  (Note: consensus is that they’re probably the Curies).

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At any rate, the psychiatry collections were fabulous, and quite informative, and I would have declared myself satisfied if that was all there was to see.  However, there remained another half of the museum to explore across the courtyard.

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This part of the museum was devoted solely to art, encompassing two separate collections.  The first was a special exhibit on the work of Gideon Kiefer, “Science Conceals Madness.”  They were pieces with a real dystopian feel; stylishly attired men and women calmly watching or doing deeply disturbing things, like performing a lobotomy, or selecting a live fetus from a jarred collection.  I liked his style, though I didn’t get any pictures (the ones above are by other artists) of his art.  So, I may have given a somewhat backhanded compliment to modern art above, but Kiefer and the second exhibit of outsider art are going to force me to give a genuine one.  I really, honestly liked this stuff a lot.

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The upper floor, was, as I mentioned, full of outsider art, much of it done by mentally ill artists (which is perhaps why I liked it so much.  It wasn’t trying too hard).  Some of my favourite pieces were by Tim Brown (on left, above), Willem Van Genk (left, below), and Hans Langner (right, below).  Van Genk had an interesting back story; he was a mentally disabled man who was questioned by the Gestapo as a child about the whereabouts of his father (who was in hiding), and forever after had a simultaneous fascination and revulsion towards raincoats, like the ones the Gestapo wore.  Thus, he would often parade around town in one, which made him feel invincible (and aroused), but would wear each one only once. On the other hand, although it didn’t have much background information, Langner’s piece was neat because it was just a room crammed so full of knick-knacks that it felt overwhelming, and slightly creepy.

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I think there was plenty of art for all tastes here, from dioramas, to lawn ornaments taken from an Indian garden, to paintings and beyond.  If I thought it was cool, then I’m sure most other people would enjoy it as well.  The outsider art collection concluded our lengthy tour of Dr. Guislain Museum, save for a stop in the museum shop for a few of their swell (albeit pricy) postcards.

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Well, I may have already given this much away in the introduction to this post, but I loved Dr. Guislain Museum!  It was the perfect combination of medical history, awesome artwork, and the most appropriate setting imaginable for a psychiatry museum.  5/5, and one of the best (if not THE best) places I’ve seen in Belgium, so make the trip if you’re anywhere in Flanders (or even Wallonia, they have French signs in addition to the English and Flemish!).

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