I spent a very long time in the old Bethlem museum, owing to the fact that there’s little else to do when you live at one of the world’s oldest psychiatric hospitals.
The Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam as it’s been known in centuries past, has moved many times over its lifetime, but it’s now located in one of London’s comfortable, sleepy suburbs. Unfortunately, there is very, and I mean, very little to do there on weekends.
The museum was occasionally open on Saturdays, and during the six months I lived at the hospital, I visited. Repeatedly, as it turned out.
But for an institution that was founded in 1247, that has been a central character in London’s history and formative in our understanding and misunderstanding of madness, the museum was surprisingly crap.
It lived in a small, bleak portakabin in the corner of the grounds. You would walk in, stare at a few tiny walls of exhibits and then chat to the curator, who would be so bereft of visitors that it would be like a turning on a ‘history of the Bethlem’ fire hose for a few minutes before you left them to solemnly contemplate the archives once more.
But after years of neglect, the portamusem has been replaced by the Museum of the Mind in the Bethlem Royal Hospital’s central building. To get an idea of how much the new museum is being valued, they kicked the hospital bosses out to make space for it.
Apart from the museum space, it also has two galleries. One dedicated to work from current patients and another that has guest exhibitions. It also does talks from historians and art workshops – on everything from art techniques to building websites. You can even buy Bedlam mugs and pencils in the museum shop – for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.
The museum itself is beautifully put together and is entirely focused on tackling the most contentious issues in mental health. Here’s a quote, painted in large letters on one of the walls:
“The words of psychiatry are often unjust stewards, sorry guardians of meaning, workers of deception.”
The quote, quite profound in itself, doesn’t have the same impact until you understand that it’s from Aubrey Lewis the ‘father of British psychiatry’ and one of the most important people in the history of the profession.
And it is this rather confrontational approach to psychiatry’s assumptions, now and in the past, which permeates the museum.
Many of these challenges come from the voices of patients themselves, either contemporary or historical, and the testimonies to medically-induced suffering sit alongside the testimonies to its value as a remedy to mental distress.
For those looking for something of the London gothic, there are strait-jackets, manacles, and panels from a genuine padded cell from an old asylum, but it’s hardly the gaudy tourism of the London Dungeon – not least because the framing is quite different – the question of what it means to be humane in treating people with mental health difficulties is a central theme.
This approach also means artwork from patients, some of whom have been the country’s most distinguished artists in their own right, is integral to the design of the museum.
While you’re visiting, by the way, have a walk through the hospital grounds. They’re open to the public, extensive and beautiful. Locals walk their dogs there and come in the use the swimming pool. It’s quite different from how many people imagine a psychiatric hospital to be (and it has to be said, quite different from how many other psychiatric hospitals are).
And before you leave the museum, don’t miss the guest book. I’ve visited twice but the comments and art in the guestbook have been one of the highlights.
Link to the Museum of the Mind website.
Disclaimer: I still work for the NHS Trust which is responsible for the museum and occasionally still work at the Bethlem. However, I have since moved out to less salubrious accommodation in South London’s out-of-control rental market. Do note, however, that the Bethlem is genuinely out of the way in suburban London. It takes a while to get there and there is still nothing else to do there on weekends.