Bristol: Glenside Hospital Museum

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It’s appropriate that this post falls near my third blogging anniversary (which was last Sunday, by the way!), because this is Bristol: Take 2, wherein I finally visit the Glenside Museum that I mentioned three long years ago.  In that post, I said it was open on Wednesdays and Fridays, but either I had it wrong, or they’ve changed their opening hours, because it is actually open from 10-12:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The museum is part of the campus of the University of the West of England (catchy name), and is housed in what was the hospital’s chapel, a rather imposing grey Victorian building.

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Though there is a parking lot right next to the museum, the museum says on their website that they don’t offer parking, so I’m assuming it was only for students and faculty of the university, or else museum volunteers.  However, we easily found parking on the street right around the corner from the museum (we visited on the Wednesday though, it may well be more crowded on Saturdays), so it wasn’t a major issue or anything.  Upon entering the museum, the first thing that hit me was the whiff of authentic smells.  I somehow doubt they were intentionally piped in, I think these were AUTHENTIC authentic smells, if you get my drift.  The second thing I noticed was the mannequin guarding the door, which initially freaked me out as I thought it was a real person (not because she looked particularly realistic, just because when you briefly glance at a person-shaped object, you assume it’s a person.  I’m not yet as bad as my poor mother, who once said, “excuse me sir,” when she bumped into a department store mannequin. My brother and I will never let her live it down).  Terrible awesome mannequins would be a hallmark of this museum.

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The museum is run on a donation only basis, and as there was no one at the front desk, it was very much a no-pressure arrangement.  While I appreciated that aspect of it, I did find it odd that none of the staff/volunteers acknowledged our presence at any point, despite there being a considerable number of them running around the building, and apparently making very smelly food for lunch (separate from the authentic smells, this was some kind of revolting meat-stink).  I don’t want someone following me around the whole time, or watching my every move, but it might have been nice if someone had at least greeted us and maybe gave a brief overview of the museum or something. The only encounter I did have with the people working there is when one of them pushed past us to show someone else something in one of the cases (from what I overheard, it sounded like the guy might have been staging a play version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted some ECT related props to use in it), which was just a bit rude, as they were talking loudly and pretended we weren’t there.  That was really the only off-putting aspect of Glenside though.

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Because, the museum was far bigger than I had been anticipating, and packed with lots of cool old medical stuff.  Glenside was originally called the Bristol Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1861, and it remained a psychiatric hospital (though the name eventually evolved into the less-offensive Glenside) throughout its 130 year history, until it closed in 1994 (that’s minus the three years it served as a war hospital during WWI).  The first gallery of the museum was a bit too text-heavy when explaining the history of the hospital, but that gave way to a corridor with lots of smaller rooms full of psychiatric stuff of varying degrees of creepiness.  For example, I really liked the set of cards depicting various types of mental illness; a lengthy explanation was provided, but I think the gist of it was that they were made so illiterate people in India had a pictorial representation of the symptoms, in case their family members displayed any of them.  And those vintage light-up brain diagrams were right up my alley (and they still worked!).

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But I was super creeped out by the lobotomy/electroshock therapy room (apparently in the UK, lobotomies are called leucotomies, which doesn’t make them sound any better).  I can’t even watch the aforementioned One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I had to see it once for a psychology class, and never again), and I’ve mentioned before how reading The Bell Jar at a formative age imbued me with a complete and lasting terror of ECT.  I also know there’s books on the history of lobotomies out there, and despite my fascination with almost every other gruesome aspect of medical history, I just can’t bring myself to read them.  So yeah, though I still looked at the ice pick that was jammed into someone’s brain, and some mannequin dioramas depicting lobotomies, I tried not to think about them too much, and I was relieved to leave that room behind me.

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Not that Victorian straitjackets and padded cells were much cheerier, but at least it didn’t involve someone excising vital chunks of the brain.  And I was actually really interested in the display of drugs used historically to treat mental illness.  And the display of bedpans, because that was very much back on weirdo-Jessica territory.

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I should mention that aside from the first room, with its text overload, captions were otherwise fairly sparse in the museum, so it didn’t take a tonne of time to look around all the other rooms.  To be honest, it was still longer than I was imagining we would spend there; going by the website, I was somehow picturing the exhibits to be smaller and crappier than they actually were.

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In addition to the macabre bits, there were also aspects of this museum that were poignant, as you would expect from a Victorian mental institution.  There were photographs and biographies of some of the patients, as well as recollections of the hospital from some 20th century patients (one just remembered it smelling of urine, which maybe explains the authentic smells aspect).  I was also struck by the account of a hairdresser at the hospital who commented on how overjoyed some of the patients were to have their hair styled, simply because they weren’t used to anyone taking care of them, or making them feel like a person, including one woman who always requested a golden rinse for her white hair to make it blonde (I was kind of picturing Betty White in her Golden Girls era when I read that).

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I mentioned earlier how Glenside also took in injured soldiers during WWI, when it was known as Beaufort War Hospital.  They also had displays relating to the war years, including what I believe was a temporary display on postcards (with children’s activities) and what they meant to soldiers.  They had also done profiles of some of the soldiers who stayed in the hospital, which were quite interesting to me as they were very similar to the work I’ve been doing on the WWI project I volunteer with.

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The building was maybe a wee bit odd in that it still had all the accoutrements of a church up, but with displays all in front of them.  There was even a display right in front of the altar, of art made by various museum volunteers, and this stuff was surprisingly good.  I say surprisingly because if someone asked me to produce a piece of art, it would look like a non-artistically-inclined 5 year old made it (I was that 5 year old, and things haven’t improved much in adulthood. All my friends and family know better than to ask me to help with any craft projects, unless they don’t mind wonky scissor work).  But their work was alright, and I especially liked the tapestry showing the history of medicine in Bristol, with a square devoted to the first cholera outbreak.

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Aside from the rather cold (well, more non-existent) reception, I really enjoyed this museum.  I don’t know if it was necessarily worth the three year wait, but I am glad I eventually got around to seeing it, because those mannequins were just as menacing as I was hoping, and the museum ended up having a fair bit to offer beyond them.  Even if psychiatry freaks me out more than other branches of medicine, there were still some very cool objects here, although I will concede they could perhaps be better organised or displayed in a more appealing manner (for me, that dated look (and the mannequins!) is a large part of the appeal, but I know I’m in the minority).  Still, for a free museum (with dismayingly limited opening hours), it was A-OK.  Not quite up to the standard of Dr. Guislain’s, by which all psychiatric museums are measured (by me), but then few things are.  3.5/5.

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6 comments

  1. I think I might find all of that a bit depressing, not just the lobotomy bit (which I’ve never heard called leucotomies! Maybe it’s just an English thing, or maybe our vocabulary has become Americanised).

    1. I suppose it is all fairly depressing (except for the mannequins, they’re too crap to be taken seriously), but the lobotomy stuff was the part I was actively freaked out by. I think it was an American doctor that popularised the operation in the first place, but that still doesn’t explain why they’d be called leucotomies at all, and I’m really not inclined to look it up for fear of learning more than I’d like to, especially right before bed!

  2. I like the seated soldier mannequin and his relaxed, hand-in-the-pocket attitude and doped out stare – but I really do not care for the mannequin children. Ick.

    1. Yeah, I was not a fan of them either. In fact, I’m pretty sure my boyfriend asked me to stand in front of them so he could get a picture, and I refused because I wasn’t going to turn my back to them. The blonde one with the really crooked bangs is like Children of the Corn scary.

      1. Ha! Well for what it’s worth, it’s impressive that you got as near to them as you did. … they’re creep-city, man.

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