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Sign the Visitors’ Book, Please

Anyone who has made the trip to the Archives & Museum will know that one of the first things they are invited to do is sign our visitors’ book. This is old - pen and paper - technology, but effective enough in affording visitors the opportunity to sign up for our quarterly email newsletter (which can also be done by filling in the box near the top right of our homepage or leave comments, as well as in providing raw data from which we can extract annual visitor numbers. Perhaps in one hundred years’ time, historians of the future will use these books to find out about museum visitors of the early twenty-first century? After all, what we did on last year’s Just Visiting thread was not all that different. Its focus, though, was on visitors to Bethlem Hospital in the last half of the nineteenth century, and early part of the twentieth.

In using the Hospital’s Visitors’ Books of that period for this purpose, we encountered an intriguing fact. While many of the people who visited the Hospital signed the book, others - unaccountably - didn’t. The result is that, while the Visitors’ Books can - and have - been mined for information concerning who visited, the absence of a name is not proof conclusive that no visit was paid. Sometimes we know, or may fairly assume, from other sources that a person whose name does not appear in the books did actually make a visit: Charlotte Brontë for instance. Yet she was not the only one.

Two German cases illustrate the point. The Frankfurt psychiatrist, children’s author and civic dignitary, Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894) visited Bethlem in June 1856. Thirty years earlier - in April 1827, to be precise - the Paris-based poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) also paid a visit. This much can be established from published sources: Hoffmann’s autobiography, and Fritz Mende’s biography of Heine (citing a letter of his), respectively. Hoffmann duly wrote in Bethlem’s Visitors’ Book; but - frustratingly, and for reasons unknown to us - Heine didn’t. Consequently, when Frankfurt’s Historisches Museum mounted an exhibition in commemoration of the bicentenary of Hoffmann’s birth, a facsimile of the page of the book on which he signed was included in it. By contrast, there was no paper trail for the compilers of the final volume of the modern, German-language edition of Heine’s works (currently in preparation) to follow.

All of this goes to show that signing the book was something that people opted into (or opted out of) back then, as indeed it is now for visitors to the Archives & Museum. No doubt there have always been some for whom the merits of anonymity trump the claims of posterity.

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