Since blogging about Forensics early in 2015, I hadn’t returned to the Wellcome Collection for a proper look around (confession: I have used their toilets when I’m in the area, because it’s better than paying 20 or 30p for the gross ones at Euston Station), having skipped the last couple of special exhibits mainly because it seemed like they were always super crowded (and one of them involved walking through a room where you apparently couldn’t really see anything. Bumping into strangers is not my cup of tea), so I thought I might as well catch the latest one, even though their no photography policy doesn’t make for very visually appealing posts.
“Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond,” runs until 15th January 2017, and is free, like everything in the Wellcome. It was done in partnership with the Bethlem Museum of the Mind; some of you may have read my guest post on These Bones of Mine about the Bethlem Museum, and recall that I wasn’t too impressed with it. Unfortunately, it was a similar story with the Bedlam exhibit at the Wellcome; if it had been at another museum, I would have thought it was perfectly fine, but based on the previous high standards of the Wellcome, it seemed a little lacking.
The exhibit was meant to be divided into “scenes from Bedlam,” however, I didn’t really get the whole “scene” concept, as there didn’t seem to be a unique theme for each room because the exhibit had been mostly arranged chronologically rather than thematically. The first room appeared to be some kind of art installation relating to people’s experiences of psychiatric institutions, and then the exhibit began talking about the history of “Bedlam” itself (the nickname for Bethlem Hospital, which gradually seeped into the lexicon as a synonym for chaos), which was founded in the 13th century, and inhabited a number of different buildings around London before moving to Beckenham, where it is still located today. As you might expect, standards of care varied widely over the centuries, with the 18th century seen as a particularly appalling time: Georgians would pay admission to view the “lunatics” as a “fun” diversion, and many of the patients were kept chained at all times, like one poor man named James Norris, whose story was detailed here. James (who was described as an “insane American”) was kept chained by his neck to a post, with a metal cage over his upper arms so he couldn’t raise them, for over 14 years! The most appalling thing is that apparently no one could remember the initial reason he had been chained up, they just left him like that as it was the way it had always been done, despite the fact that he wasn’t violent, and was capable of rational conversation. There were also a range of books and plays from this period that showed how madness was portrayed in popular culture, but overall, this section wasn’t terribly engaging.
The 19th century saw a move to slightly more humane treatment of patients, though some doctors still insisted that keeping the patients chained or straitjacketed was the best thing for them (by contrast, late 19th century Broadmoor (of all places!) seems to have been remarkably humane. I’ve recently read The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, which has detailed descriptions of life there (and is generally a pretty interesting book)). This section of the exhibit was located under a dome; I suppose it was meant to mirror the dome of the Victorian Bethlem, which is the current location of the Imperial War Museum (and very dome-y it is indeed), but the main benefit was that the two concentric circles the displays were arranged in left more room for people to look around than the Wellcome’s normal configuration. There was actually a lot of wonderful art created by patients in this section (sorry, “scene”), but probably the most interesting thing of all was a set of samplers made by a woman who believed she’d been confined unfairly. Her stitching was partly an artistic outlet, of course, but the samplers were also basically rambling letters to Queen Victoria pleading for her release, which I think she attempted to mail to the Queen. The whole story was very sad. There was a movie room off to the right of this section, which was showing a strange German film called Caligari and the Sleepwalker, based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which a man who believed he was an extraterrestrial entered an extremely odd institution run by a bearded and bespectacled doctor, who was constantly chomping on gum and communicated with the patient via chalkboard. I could only take about five minutes of this before I had to leave; it was just too damn bizarre.
There was a fairly unmemorable room about how the discovery of diazepam and similar drugs changed the treatment of mental illness (thankfully, there was only a brief mention of electroshock, because that freaks me out bad); the only thing of note in here was a series of drawings by Ugo Guarino that showed the negative side of psychiatric treatments in the 1970s, and helped lead to the closing of outdated hospitals in Italy, and the opening of modern mental health centres instead.
The final room contained current psychiatric patients’ ideas of what would make for an ideal hospital; their ideas sounded lovely, like having treehouses they could retreat to when they wanted to be alone, a kitten petting room, and really comfy sofas and beds so they could just spend the whole day reading and watching TV, but it did raise some interesting questions for me, in that this ideal hospital sounds much nicer than the real world, so I’m not sure how well it would equip people to deal with the demands of the outside world. I think it’s a tricky balance to strike, between giving people a calm, safe, and caring environment, but also an environment that will help them integrate successfully back into mainstream society, which can be a scary place for all of us (certainly us introverts anyway).
I wasn’t overly impressed with the exhibit as a whole, as most of the artefacts just seemed to be old books open to title pages or not particularly interesting-looking passages. There were a few tablets laying out, but to be honest, I’m far less likely to pick up some random tablet that has been slung on a table seemingly as an afterthought than I am to engage with a normal interactive touchscreen that’s more clearly part of a display, so they didn’t really enhance the interactivity for me. The best part was definitely the art produced by psychiatric patients, which was poignant and insightful, but Bethlem Museum of the Mind had way more of that sort of thing, and I still didn’t think that museum was terribly good, so the same goes for the Wellcome. A rare dud. 3/5.
“Making Nature: How we see Animals” is another temporary exhibit at the Wellcome that happened to open on the day of my visit. This is located in the smaller exhibition space on the first floor, so it was only two rooms. However, it did contain some interesting stuff, most notably information on the building of the Natural History Museum (designed by Richard Owen, the pioneering, yet controversial 19th century paleontologist and zoologist), where I learned that until the 1920s, the design included a statue of Adam that was meant to show man’s dominion over the animal kingdom (not surprising because Richard Owen seemed to be quite religious); as well as information about the creation of the hilarious Crystal Palace dinosaurs (again, designed by Richard Owen. In many cases, the dinosaurs look a bit off because Owen was simply going off the best theories available at the time, which have since been proven wrong (although apparently even he thought the Iguanodon looked a bit ridiculous), but that’s part of what makes them such a delight. Crystal Palace is a bitch to get to, but perhaps I should go back one of these days so I can blog about it!). Because the exhibit was largely about how nature is portrayed in museums, there was a bit of taxidermy: a delightful tableau from 1876 showing fox cubs at play, and even better, one of the elusive pieces from Walter Potter’s museum, with anthropomorphic squirrels playing cards. I’m still angry at myself for missing the Potter Museum auction (even though I doubt I could have afforded anything anyway), so I’m always delighted to see his pieces pop up somewhere.
Also on the first floor, hiding in the corner next to the nifty spiral staircase, was a “Spirit Booth” meant to capture your “psychic transparency,” whatever the hell that is. Basically, it was a free photo booth that would insert a sort-of ghost in your photo, so I was all for it. Mine ended up with a skeleton “spirit” which is so me; the only bad part is that my photograph will now apparently appear online (update: just found it, so you can see it for yourself), and let me tell you, there was some unfortunate lighting in that booth. Oh well, I guess the skeleton makes up for it…? But yeah, if you go to the Wellcome in the near future (“Making Nature” runs until May), definitely go up to the first floor to check out the exhibit and get your photo taken, since to be honest, I enjoyed that part of the museum more than “Bedlam.”