Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond dives headlong into mental health at the Wellcome Collection

By Rachel Teskey | 26 September 2016

The Wellcome's new exhibition takes the 13th century Royal Bethlem Hospital as a focal point for a boundary-pushing exhibition, says Rachel Teskey

Eva Kotátková, Asylum (2013). Installation view in the new Bedlam exhibition at London's Wellcome Collection© Courtesy Eva Kotátková / Wellcome Collection
How – and indeed whether or not – museums should tackle social issues is a hot topic. Should museums reflect and represent contemporary concerns, or are these challenging topics beyond their remit?

Are museums the right place for these discussions, or do they require more time, space and resources than museums can provide? And do visitors even want to confront these issues in a museum context?

The answer to this last question is a resounding ‘yes’, to judge from the queues outside the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition on its opening weekend. The Wellcome is renowned for its boundary-pushing approach – mixing art, science and history – and novel exhibition themes: recent exhibitions have covered topics as diverse and abstract as consciousness, the voice, sex and forensic science.

Richard Dadd, Sir Alexander Morison, 1779-1866© Alienist, courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Shana Moulton, Restless Leg Saga (2012)© Courtesy Shana Moulton
Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond dives headlong into one of the most challenging social issues of all: mental health. At the core of the exhibition lies the story of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, once popularly known as ‘Bedlam’, which was founded in 1247 and continues to provide mental health care today.

Over the centuries, the development of the hospital – both in its physical form and the nature of the care provided – reflected broader trends in mental health treatment. The exhibition explores the experiences of those who inhabited Bethlem Hospital and other institutions over time and across the world.

Displays of footage, prints, photographs and written accounts of early asylums are interesting to view and often shocking, such as articles on the treatment of James Norris, a patient at Bethlem in the 1800s who was chained to the wall by the neck for ten years, and whose case was instrumental in the creation of new regulations to improve asylums. But these displays place the visitor on the outside looking in, making it difficult to engage with what patients actually experienced.

William Hogarth, The Rake's Progress (with Britannia) (1763)© Trustees of the British Museum
Under the Dome 1892-1930. Ink on paper. Handwritten hospital magazine© Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Tony Robert-Fleury, Pinel freeing the insane from their chains (1876)© Wellcome Library, London
Similarly, displays on contemporary developments in psychiatry – academic tomes, promotional material from drug companies, self-help leaflets – provide little insight into the realities of mental health care today.

The exhibition really hits its stride when it allows us a glimpse of people’s lives and experiences through their artwork. Particularly striking are two portraits of doctors by their patients.

One is by Richard Dadd depicting the governor of Bethlem as a gaunt, dishevelled and lonely figure, and the other is Van Gogh’s etching of his psychiatrist, who Van Gogh describes as “very nervous and very bizarre himself”: the line between what is perceived as ‘sane’ or ‘insane’ has always been a blurred one.

Henry Hering, Richard Dadd at his easel (1857)© Courtesy Bethlem Museum of the Mind
A range of patients’ artworks are on display, from the poignant – the sketchy yet vivid drawings of JJ Beegan who, without access to materials, created his artworks on toilet paper using the ends of charred matches, or the beautifully embroidered samplers that Mary Heaton sent to Queen Victoria to petition for her release from Wakefield Asylum – to the entertaining, most notably Jamie Tellez’s witty and surreal film ‘Caligari and the Sleepwalker’, written and acted by patients at a clinic in Berlin. These works provide a far more powerful insight into the themes of the exhibition than a more academic approach ever could.

The lasting impression that these exhibits leave demonstrate that museums can be places to explore social issues. Presenting these narratives sensitively and effectively is a challenge: taking an academic, outsider’s perspective on an issue risks leaving visitors cold and those affected by the issue feeling alienated.

Vincent Van Gogh, L'Homme á la pipe (1890)© Trustees of the British Museum
Jane Fradgley, Cocoon (2012)© Jane Fradgley
Providing a space where individuals who have been affected by these issues can make their voice heard is vital, either metaphorically through involvement in exhibition curation or literally – ‘Bedlam’ is accompanied by ‘Our Voices’, an audio tour featuring interviews, poems and reminiscences by creative practitioners with lived experience of mental health issues.

And most importantly of all, exhibitions like this need to leave visitors with some space to reflect and something positive to take away. In ‘Bedlam’, this comes in the form of a ‘Designer Asylum’ – a vibrant, utopian, modern-day asylum created from the ideas of over 400 people with experience of the mental health system.

It’s an uplifting way to end a complex exhibition, and proves that the difficult topics are always worth tackling.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

© Courtesy Eva Kotátková / Wellcome Collection
Jane Fradgley, Within (2012)© Jane Fradgley
The Royal Hospital of Bethlehem - The Gallery for Women© Bethlem Museum of the Mind
© Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Javier Tellez, Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008)© Javier Tellez / Galerie Peter Kilchmann
© Javier Tellez / Galerie Peter Kilchmann
Latest comment: >Make a comment
I couldn't make any sense of it. The scripts i saw were typed small in courier font and hard to read. I got no sense of a timeline, or a narrative - no idea what it was trying to say. This is a topic I know quite a lot about and it was mystifying.
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