Bethlem Museum of the Mind takes Museums at Night 20 behind the scenes

By Kate McNab | 17 May 2014

At Bethlem Royal Hospital, a museum celebrating the achievements of people with mental health problems hosted an inspiring Museums at Night event

A photo of a man being dressed up in a black top hat and suit
Twenty guests were invited to join London’s Bethlem Museum of the Mind – established in 1970 at a hospital with origins in the 13th century – for object-handling, a chance to recreate photos made by patient Henry Hering during the 1950s and after-hours viewings of the temporary exhibition, Adamson and Kurelek: Two Artists of the Mind.

Edward Adamson, a therapist and pioneer in the expression of the mind and healing through art, encouraged William Kurelek, his patient, to create large watercolour paintings.

A photo of a sign reading the museum of the mind
They contain disturbing, graphic content on uncomfortable subjects, reflecting the artist's inner torment. In the conservation lab, visitors were given a talk about Bethlem's planned move to a larger building on site.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Health Service, the development will house the archives, a permanent display, temporary exhibition spaces and a learning centre.

The staff were excited to discuss the move, as the current exhibition space is very small and the museum's collection is quite large.

They aim to be the most important national collection concerning mental health, and their friendliness and positivity shone during an intimate and informal evening.

When they move, two large statues currently on display in Ghent, Raving and Melancholy Madness, will finally be displayed at the foot of the entrance staircase. 

The second talk focused on the hospital in the 1850s, when Hering was a patient. Hering's photos of fellow patients were typically before and after shots, capturing the sitters during their treatment and as they left the care of the hospital.

A notable subject of Hering's was David McNaughton, who was sent to Bethlem after attempting to kill the Prime Minister. Not knowing what his target looked like, he instead mistakenly murdered Edward Drummond, the Secretary of State.

McNaughton's case was discussed in the House of Lords and guidelines surrounding the defence of insanity were created. Today "McNaughton's Rules" are still used. 

In one of the offices, freelance Object Handling and Reminiscence Work Specialist Renia Jenkins laid out a selection of her personal collection of Victorian and Edwardian objects and clothing for people to try on, handle and discuss.

An extremely enthusiastic and engaging presence, Jenkins told stories about the objects and her work in using objects in schools and therapy for the mentally ill, urging her audience to try on bonnets and jackets and have their photo taken while replicating some of the poses of Hering's subjects.

This relatively tiny museum is enjoyable to wander, and the big plans for the large collection were enthusing to hear for a group who were given goody bags at the end. A larger museum might not have been able to create such a welcoming atmosphere.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of people looking around inside a museum
A photo of a man looking at a black and white large photo inside a museum
A photo of people sitting around looking at a screen inside a museum education room
A photo of two black and white photos of 1950s men in suits inside a museum
Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter@MuseumsAtNight.

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