26 February 2017 | 11 °C

New Wellcome Exhibition Invites You Into Bedlam

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New Wellcome Exhibition Invites You Into Bedlam

Bedlam. A word that has become synonymous with chaos and disorder is derived from Western Europe's oldest mental institution, the Bethlem Royal Hospital. The Wellcome Collection's new exhibition, Bedlam: the asylum and beyond, uses the often turbulent history of the Bethlem as the central narrative to explore the role of mental health institutions in society.  

A deftly intertwined mixture of historical artefacts and multimedia art, the exhibition seeks to reconsider what the mental health asylum means now and throughout its evolution. Professional perspective is juxtaposed with the personal testimony of those who have direct experience of the system. The exhibition aims to challenge the typical portrayal of asylums as nightmarish places without merit, while giving a voice to those who inhabited them and considering what their legacy means for us today.  

An advertisement for the anti-psychotic drug thorazine from 1956

Our Voices is an audio tour with a difference, allowing the listener to move through the exhibition, while hearing from creative practitioners with lived experience of mental health issues. The interviews and spoken word create an audible counterpoint to the visual material presented in each room — keeping the viewer grounded in the human dimension.

Eva Kotatkova's installation Asylum confronts visitors as they enter with a disorientating array of  images and text, inspired by visits to a contemporary psychiatric hospital in Prague. The surreal nature of the piece conveys the frequently dissociative impact of mental illness. This effect is accentuated by actors, who animate the work with parts of their body, highlighting themes of incompleteness and disintegration, restraint and protection.

Asylum by Eva Kotakova

The Bethlem itself has had four physical manifestations since its founding in 1247, each reflecting the particular social concerns of the day and the transitions between them underpin the exhibition's narrative. Every previous incarnation was founded in a spirit of optimism, but ended in infamy. The original ramshackle medieval site on the outskirts of the City survived the Great Fire of London 350 years ago, but was shortly after rebuilt in grand baroque style in Moorfields, where it became the archetypal 18th century madhouse.  This in turn fell in to disrepair leading to its move to the stocky, unadorned asylum in Southwark, now part of the Imperial War Museum. Since 1930 the Bethlem has occupied a site in Monk's Orchard, Beckenham, originally designed as a 'village' to enhance integration with the local community.

James Tilly Matthew, a former patient at the Bethlem in the 18th Century created this extraordinary entry for a competition to design the new hospital, which featured a much greater emphasis on rehabilitation

Throughout its history the Bethlem has played a prominent part in shaping the public perception of madness, with numerous references in art and literature on display throughout the exhibition. Early representations include a copy of the 17th century poem Tom of Bedlam subtitled 'A mad poem by a mad author', early modern plays incorporating a Bedlam scene and, most notoriously, Hogarth's depiction of Tom Rakewell reaching his nadir in the Moorfields asylum, gawped at by paying members of the public visiting the hospital for entertainment.

The infamous first scene from Bedlam in Hogarth's The Rake's Progress

The curators have ensured that the view is not just unidirectional. The Victorian painter Richard Dadd and impressionist Vincent van Gogh both produced portraits of their doctors, which provide an artistic riposte to the medical gaze.

Richard Dadd's oil portrait of Bethlem governor Sir Alexander Morison
Vincent van Gogh's L'Homme à la Pipe, portraying Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet

In the 20th Century art has been increasingly encouraged to aid analysis and as a therapeutic process in its own right. One pioneering  example of this is embodied in the Adamson Collection, created by artist and art therapist Edward Adamson, which is captured by the essay film Abandoned Goods.

A scene from Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson's Abandoned Goods

The 1960s brought huge changes in psychiatry, with the introduction of new treatments and a simultaneous backlash against asylums. Following Enoch Powell's water tower speech of 1961, many of the asylums were closed down and a policy of care in the community pursued. The exhibition parallels this rise and fall of the asylums with the alternative perspective offered by the Flemish town of Geel, where for centuries pilgrims have sought solace from St Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally distressed and to board with local families, who provide a unique form of community care.

Lantern slide of patients around a table in Geel, Belgium

After many decades of controversy, the asylum has been become dislocated from its original connotations of sanctuary. Madlove: A Designer Asylum aims to reclaim it as 'a safe place to go mad' and draws on the experience of over 300 people with lived experience of mental distress to imagine a perfect institution.

Madlove's vision of a designer asylum

The contemporary, post-asylum landscape offers a multiplicity of treatments and therapies, which have the potential to overwhelm. In a film installation entitled Restless Leg Saga artist Shana Moulton depicts the relentless search for relief from our mental distress.

A scene from Restless Leg Saga

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond is a fascinating hybrid of art gallery and historical museum, which challenges us to reconsider the meaning of the asylum and think about how we as a society respond to mental illness.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond is at the Wellcome Collection until 15 January 2017. Entry is free.

Last Updated 16 September 2016