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Curatorial Conversations I

Some of you may remember Nell Leyshon’s play Bedlam, which premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre last year. It is fair to say that the play attracted mixed reviews at the time. Here at the Archives & Museum, as we are beginning to turn our minds to the renewal and development of our display space that will accompany our intended relocation, we continue to mull over comments made in one of the most trenchant reviews of the play:

It is telling that Nell Leyshon’s script was researched in the company of medical professionals at the modern Bethlehem hospital. The way in which a transition from “archaic” to “modern” medicine is set up and handled, is so benign and uncomplicated that it could have come from a flyer she absent-mindedly picked up on the ward. The unproblematic figure of Dr Maynard, played as a clear-thinking moderniser by Phil Cheadle, struts his enlightened changes, his safe hands delivering us into the dawn of surveillance and incarceration as if it were simply liberation into a new professional era. That the confinement of the mentally disordered is again in vogue today, not just in Russia and China, but in the UK where successive decades of community-focused care are being reversed in an atmosphere of tabloid hysteria and the strengthening of pharmacological interests, seems to leave this play untroubled.

We are not in a position to say what may have been gleaned from medical professionals in the course of the research that underpinned this play, but certainly Archives & Museum staff did not use their own limited contact with those responsible for the play to encourage or endorse a straightforward evolutionary narrative in which past custodial horrors are simply contrasted with the enlightened psychiatric practice of the present.

The play has come and gone, of course, but the reviewer’s comments have stayed with us. The Archives & Museum has a long-standing commitment to recording the lives and experience, and celebrating the achievements, of people with mental health problems. It is anticipated that the relocation and renewal of its displays will bring closer the realisation of that aspiration. Yet contributors to a recently-published book on museums of psychiatry in Australasia, Canada and the UK, (called Exhibiting Madness in Museums) have challenged the very raison d’être of psychiatric collections in terms that are reminiscent of the reviewer’s criticism of the Bedlam play.

First, should such collections be maintained at all, given that (according to the book’s editors) ‘there are two violently opposed schools of thought: those that wish to preserve a form of history, and those who would be happy to see no trace left of the former psychiatric regimes, the buildings and landscape that housed them, as well as any artefacts that relate to these practices’? Are collectors and curators inevitably compromised by the very act of collecting and curating? In their attempts to ‘represent some past actors’, are they fated to ‘obfuscate and obliterate the voices of the majority…through processes of selection, omission and oversight’?1

Second, who may be trusted to maintain, display and interpret such collections? Do the institutional affiliations of most psychiatric museums implicate them in a partisan ‘appropriation’ of mental health service users’ past by ‘medical and state bodies’? Is the construction of ‘a survivor-controlled museum of madness and the psychiatric system’ the only viable alternative?2

Third, and perhaps most importantly, how may psychiatric collections be exhibited most appropriately? What narrative will they be asked to sustain, if not a Whiggish one of uninterrupted progress and enlightenment? In an occasional series of blog posts called Curatorial Conversations, we will be addressing some of these questions from time to time, and asking our readers to contribute their comments as well. After all, answers to these questions will be required in time for the development of a new museum of the mind.