Curatorial Conversations XIV
The last essay included in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon’s volume Exhibiting Madness in Museums (our ‘conversation partner’ on this thread over the past year or so) is written by Fiona Parrott and begins: “Studies of psychiatric collecting have tended to focus on the material and visual traces of institutional environments of the past, rather than privileging the traces and presence of patients inside these institutions”.1 On a casual reading, this looks like a criticism, an accusation of bias either on the part of the psychiatric collections or those that have studied them . Yet there is a perfectly innocuous explanation for this tendency. When patients leave hospital - any hospital - they generally take their property with them, and their collections stay private as a consequence. In this regard the exhibition The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic is the exception that proves the rule. (Interestingly, Fiona Parrott’s essay describes the reluctance of today’s medium secure unit residents to decorate their rooms with possessions or even put posters on the walls, saying things like “I don’t want to make it look like I’m here for a long-time”.2) As a result, psychiatric collections, artefactual or archival, tend to consist largely of institutional records, which rarely contain unmediated accounts of the attitudes of patients, or of the general public, towards mental healthcare.
At first glance, the collections here at Bethlem are of this institutional nature. Indeed, the Archives & Museum is appointed as a place of deposit for the public records of the NHS Foundation Trust of which it is a part and its antecedents. Yet a little digging shows that the perspectives of patients are never far from the surface, even in the unlikeliest of places. Amongst the building records for the third hospital at St George’s Fields, for example, lie a set of plans and descriptions by the patient James Tilly Matthews, “probably for the first time ever, designs by a lunatic for a lunatic asylum, conceived not from the perspective of the doctors who will manage it but [from that of] the patients who will live in it”, according to Matthews’ biographer.3 There are, of course, more obvious places in our to look in our collections for patient perspectives. This blog’s In the Frame thread is an ongoing reminder of the breadth of our holdings of service user art.
Bethlem’s Victorian medical records open yet another window onto first-hand experiences at the Hospital. Contained in large casebooks, the majority of the record is written at one remove from the patients by Bethlem doctors. However, included in these books from time to time are letters from patients (and sometimes their relatives) to the Hospital, written during or after their stay. A wide range of modes of negotiation is represented here - complaint, threat, entreaty, gratitude. This is a valuable primary source for the patient side of the doctor-patient encounter, one which we hope to utilise in displays planned for our new museum. Though the curatorial conversations that are preparatory to our relocation are continuing, we have decided to close this particular thread of our blog, if only to make way for the discussion of other topics. Research into patients’ letters has already prompted more than one blog post, and we trust that it will prove a rich seam from which we can draw for future posts.