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Out and about; London Museums of Health and Medicine Event

The Museum of the Mind has now been open for nine glorious months and in that time has seen thousands of visitors pass through its doors. It has promoted contemporary mental health issues and increased visitor’s knowledge about the history of mental health treatment in an interactive way. Bethlem Museum has been designed to create discussion and debate amongst visitors, and it is always heartening as the community engagement officer to hear lots of engaged voices in the two gallery spaces.

But what about outside of the museum space? How do we engage with those who cannot visit due to travel expenses, time restraints or simply because they do not know we exist? The answer is to bring the museum to them. For this purpose Bethlem Museum of the Mind has worked with freelance reminiscence and educational object expert Renia Jenkins in creating an object handling collection which can be used in the museum or as part of outreach. The objects demonstrate several different themes central to hospital life over the last one hundred years; the hospital kitchen, medicine, the mother and baby unit and a box of “mystery objects.” Each object has been especially chosen in order to generate conversation about what life might have been (and still is) like living and working on a mental health hospital site. It is a fantastic tool for engaging with the community in a way that might have been difficult outside of a museum environment, and prompts conversations about current debates within the mental health spectrum.

Whilst we mostly utilize these objects in our museum space, we also take them out to other locations and special events. An example of this was the recent “London Museums of Health and Medicine” event at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons in London. This group brings together all of the medical museums in London in order to better promote to those interested in medical history, but also to provide a supportive base for all those museums involved in this area of study. Once a year they get together in order to promote their institution to the public, and participate with the community in their own unique way.

A selection of our handling objects on a table with a red tablecloth. Behind the objects are display cases at the Hunterian Museum.

We were there with a selection of our handling objects, and over the period of four hours we spoke to many different people. Some knew who we were and had visited before, some had heard of Bethlem Royal Hospital as they work in the mental health sector, but to many we were a new entity they had not encountered before. Our objects attracted a lot of attention, as many of them don’t obviously “belong” in a medical collection, for example a lunchbox belonging to the men who looked after the pigs on Park Farm, a portable cake stand and a stitching pony used for leatherwork. We also had objects out that prompted memories, such as an old style baby feeder, a WW2 era mustard tin and a nurses uniform. We had many different discussions with the visitors (learning a few new facts along the way!) and through the objects were able to potentially develop a new audience base.

If you would like us to visit your institution with some of our objects, please use the contact form here. We also hold object handling sessions in our museum; check our events page for dates and times.