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Curatorial Conversations XIII

(continued from previous post )

Last month, we considered the application of the term "voyeurism" to museums of mental health. In further exploring this idea, it is interesting to note that the very term originated within the field of sexual psychopathology around the turn of the twentieth century, and is still attributed as a diagnosis in this context. This emphasises a presumed need for intervention (either directly or indirectly, by preventing access to pornographic and similar materials) to prevent behaviour deemed to be negative or unhealthy. Within the context of psychiatric visiting, the idea is most frequently associated by writers with the open doors of eighteenth-century Bethlem. Examples of the cruelty of some individual visitors in such circumstances are used to portray the very practice as essentially sadistic (another term popularised by Krafft-Ebing), ignoring the great diversity of experiences and motives for visiting, as well as issues later raised by the closing of institutional doors (including allegations of abuse).

Is voyeurism really a problem for today’s mental health museums? How would we even judge whether or not a person’s experiences of the collection were voyeuristic? As in the eighteenth century, the motivations for visiting psychiatric museums are extremely varied, ranging from personal and familial experience to social and political concerns or general interest. Indeed, fears over voyeurism might seem to conflict with the educational aims of many of these collections. A recent MA project at the University of Birmingham by Laura Humphreys found that lack of interest in fact appeared to be the biggest challenge for psychiatric museums, with a portion of the museum-going public not regarding such collections as relevant or interesting. If one aims (as the Bethlem Museum does) to contribute towards the destigmatisation of mental illness there is, after all, less point in preaching to the potentially converted (those with direct experience of mental health services by any means) than to the so-called “voyeurs” who may have a general interest but little knowledge of the realities of mental health experiences and treatment. Stigmatising such potential visitors as “voyeuristic” may be an elitist and potentially damaging attitude.