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article imageReview: Bedlam and Beyond exhibition in London Special

By Tim Sandle     Oct 24, 2016 in Health
London - Bedlam asylum was the first asylum for people with mental health issues, with its origins in the thirteenth century. The history of the asylum, on show at the Wellcome Collection in London, charts the history of social attitudes.
The Wellcome Collection along Euston Road in London is a museum dedicated to the display of displaying an unusual mixture of medical artifacts. The collection also includes several art works, since the collection attempts to bridge the divide between science and the humanities. The collection, and its vast library, is run by the Wellcome Trust, which is a biomedical charity established from a fund set up by Sir Henry Wellcome. Today the trust is the world's second-largest private funder after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Wellcome Collection consists of a permanent display and an exhibition that changes every six-months or so. The new temporary exhibition is dedicated to the history of Bedlam, or the Bethlem Royal Hospital as it is officially known. The exhibition is called ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ and it runs until January 15, 2017.
The aim of the exhibition is to chart the rise and fall of the mental asylum and how it has shaped the complex landscape of mental health today. The significance goes beyond London, for the contraction ‘Bedlam’ became a general term for all asylums.
The focus of the exhibition is with people, rather than medicine, although medical practice diffuses through the works on display. The exhibition focuses on the lived experiences of those who inhabited asylums or who created alternatives to them. With this there is on show a rich variety of documents, photographs, books, films and art. This human focus is welcomed, for the medical perspective is juxtaposed with the personal testimony of those who have direct experience of the system, across different eras.
The exhibition opens with an artwork, aimed to show different perceptions of mental illness. The various items were assembled by Eva Kotátková and the exhibit is called ‘Madlove: A Designer Asylum.’ The exhibition then moves to look at the history of the asylums (Bedlam has moved three times in its history). For most of its history, the conditions faces by those incarcerated (few went to the asylum voluntarily) are chilling. Despite ninetieth century reforms the squalid conditions would have done little to relive a person of their symptoms.
The exhibition also examines the social history of mental illness, of what society defines as normal and abnormal. This includes some deplorable categorizations of mental illness, such as the enforced locking away of young girls who became single parents. The subsequent reforms, pushed by medics, politicians and campaigners, affirms that much of ‘mental illness’ is a social and political construct, with a fixed time and place.
There are some interesting video documentaries and displays of art created by patients at the asylum over the years. This includes items from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century when, denied access to materials, some patients resorted to drawing with charcoal on lavatory paper. Several of these survive today and are on display.
The coming of pharmacological solutions is also covered, with the development of antipsychotic drugs and tranquilizer medicine. Also hinted at., but not explored in detail, are the political perspectives and the reasons for reform, including those that took place in the U.K. between the 1960s and 1980s, which led to many asylums being closed and the patients being returned to the community.
The exhibition closes with the hospital today and the more open and nurturing environment, where modern psychiatry and psychology have recognized that greater freedoms, especially allowing patients to create, represents part of an effective treatment program.
Although there are many asylums around the world, including the modern Bedlam in the London suburb of Beckenham, asylums today have largely been consigned to history. The concept is generally regarded as outmoded and inhumane.
The exhibition is interesting and changes perceptions of mental health, as well as charting the history of the oldest asylum in the word.
More about bedlam, Asylum, Mental health
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