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Facing Challenges in Displaying and Interpreting Mental Health in Museums - Part One

In this short series of blog posts on the museum’s current temporary exhibition The Four Ages of Woman, I will focus on this question, tweeted by @catherineh_ms

“What are the main challenges around displaying and interpreting mental health in museums?"

One of the biggest challenges that we face in displaying and interpreting mental health at the museum is writing effective text that deciphers art and objects, but that also sensitively discusses and supports the history of mental healthcare and treatment.

All interpretation, and indeed the act of curating an exhibition, is intrinsically subjective; as curators we choose what to show and what to say, in order to support the selected theme of an exhibition.

When writing about each artwork in our temporary exhibitions, we aim to unpack the visual significance of each piece, coupled with any information that we know about the artist and their life, to enable visitors to learn from the art, and understand why each work has been included.

When we’re writing this text, it is possible to place emphasis on the artist’s biographical information over the iconographical interpretation of the artwork itself. In any context this can certainly shed light on the creation or development of an artwork, but could also lead to presumptions being made about the influence behind that piece of art, especially when we are discussing the convergence of art and mental health. Conflating biographies with artwork could be seen as undermining the intrinsic value of the work itself, an impediment to the art being seen and appreciated in its own right. To mitigate misinterpretation we try to use artists’ own words to explain their work where possible, providing visitors with direct access to their unique perspective.

Within the collection of the Museum of the Mind, there are nuances in the way the art is interpreted. Some artists such as Stanley Lench, whose work Marlene Dietrich with Skull (1975) features in the current exhibition, requested that his medical records be made available so that visitors to the museum could consider his artwork alongside his experience of mental illness and treatment. The museum is fortunate to have some tape recorded interviews between Stanley Lench and his friend David Trowbridge, in which they discuss the artist’s life and some of the major influences on his art. These interviews give a detailed insight into Lench's work in the museum collection, and are a valuable resource when we are working up interpretation that is authentic and discerning, and offers the opportunity to decode his artworks comprehensively.

Lench Ldbth256 Marlene Dietrichwith Skull1975B

Stanley Lench, who was born in 1934, suffered with mental health problems from an early age and excelled at art, exhibiting at the Beaux Art Gallery in West London in 1955. He subsequently gained a place at the Royal College of Art, studying in the stained glass department - a skill that is evident through his stylised paintings like Marlene Dietrich with Skull, shown here. This painting was included in the exhibition as it represents the value that is placed on the retention of youth and beauty. While he was studying, this is a topic that Lench became fascinated with, as well as the glamour of the theatre, and the stars of the silent screen. Appearances, glamour and the ageing process all became crucial and long standing themes of his work. Marlene Dietrich was at the peak of her film career between the 1920s and 1950s. She was well known for retaining her beauty through the use of wigs and cosmetics, and Lench reflects this in the over-emphasis of the actress’ facial features, hairstyle and long painted fingernails. The skull on the left undermines the preservation of youth by acting as a ‘memento mori,’ a reminder of mortality.