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“Uncomfortable Glory” Part 2

09 May 2016

Part 1 of  "Uncomfortable Glory" can be found here

Advertising was what the hospital needed, just like any other charitable organisation. Bethlem Hospital ran entirely on the kind gifts and donations of the people outside its walls. Money; farmland and bits of land all across the country, including some prime London buildings, have all been recorded as being gifted to the hospital for their use at some point in its history and although much of this land has now been sold off the Museum Archive still holds many records pertaining to them. The buildings and farms could be rented out by the board of directors to provide a steady income for the hospital and the donations of money supplemented this.

In this way Bethlem’s statues were as much an advertising statement as the crossed ribbons for Cancer Research. The statues reminded the people enjoying the ample grounds and fabulously decorated building of the human aspect. They encouraged the public to make a donation to the poor souls inside the walls and also acted as a source of intrigue. The onlookers were almost dared to come inside (for a small fee) by these two menacing sculptures, and witness the goings on themselves. As time passed and the air began to pollute the stone they must have appeared even more terrifying and ominous, they appeared blackened and pock-marked by the time they were rescued from the disintegrating building and moved into storage. This likely added to the excitement of the public onlookers.

However, while we may look back on this voyeuristic attitude to the mentally ill with disgust we ignore how important these visits were for fundraising. Up until incredibly recently mental health was so little understood. The Asylums and Institutions that haunt our movie theatres are often Victorian buildings or newer, reflecting a time when mental health was hidden as though it was an embarrassing family shame. By allowing the public into Bethlem for a fee in the 17th and 18th centuries the hospital was not only able to collect money for the upkeep of the patients and the building but was also able to spread the word about the hospital and attract families to do what they could to help their afflicted loved ones, rather than hide them away forever.

When the Statues were removed from their prominent position and moved, from storage to museum and back, the entire face of Bethlem changed. The building that was then built to be Bethlem is now known as The Imperial War Museum. Looking at the face of the building, it is easy to see the new image the institution wanted to impart, to be more in line with the thoughts of the time. Plain and regimented, function over fashion and a rather more quiet existence than the flamboyant Moorfield. The public’s relationship with the patients of Bethlem was over as the sick were as tucked away as the statues that once represented them.

In the way that these things often do, this situation seems to have turned about. Now, hundreds of years since these statues first drew the public to visit Bethlem they are, once again, standing at an entrance. This time for the Bethlem Museum of the Mind. To shield them from further damage they are now inside. But at ground level they do just as good a job at enticing the world to come inside and witness the stories of the institution and the patients, past, present and future. 

A 3D printed model of Raving and Melancholy Madness, as they would have been seen at the Moorfields site (pictured). Available to view in the museum foyer. 

Tagged in: uncomfortable glory, statues, raving and melancholy madness, history, cibber,