During the month of May, ‘Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum’ has also been on display in a smaller format in two Scottish prisons, Low Moss and Barlinnie, and Rab was able to visit the prisons and give a talk about the exhibition and the history of mental health care in the nineteenth century. Here he talks about his experience of visiting HMP Barlinnie.
Last month I visited Her Majesty’s Prison Barlinnie at the invitation of Fife College, which provides educational facilities for all 13 Scottish Prison Service institutions. I gave a talk that started with a discussion of the ‘Face to Face’ exhibition, which has been on display at Barlinnie and also at Low Moss. But I added in some of the 19th century ‘scientific’ background about judging character and intellect through the appearance of the face (physiognomy) and skull (phrenology). Thus my sub-title was: ‘Head to Head’ (invite me to give the talk and you’ll see why that is important). These approaches to understanding both normal and abnormal psychology flourished in the 19th century and were very popular. Even Queen Victoria took her children to a phrenologist to have their characters ‘read’.
Barlinnie is a forbidding place with a tough reputation, reinforced by a recent TV documentary about life behind bars. That programme focused on the crimes inmates had committed, the problem of drug misuse, the relations between staff and prisoners, and between prisoners themselves. Just as ‘Face to Face’ aims to represents the patients featured in the exhibition as people with mental health issues rather than ‘lunatics’, I did not ask about the offences for which the men who came to my talk had been imprisoned. And only incidentally did I pick up on the damaged lives and minds of those who sat in front of me.
My audience was polite and appreciative, with plenty to say about the exhibition and talk, and about themselves; they were engaged, but also independent in their approach. Some were quieter than others, but that is true of any teaching situation. The hour and a half flew by. I only remembered where I was when a prison officer opened the door to the classroom and announced that the class was over.
I wish I could have spent longer teasing out some of the points about experiences of mental disorder and its many different forms, both among the people of the past and some members of my audience. Maybe I can do that at the other Scottish prisons where I have been invited to speak during the summer. Meanwhile, I hope my talk and our discussion helped the audience use the lessons of history, to become more aware of mental health issues, both in themselves and others
Prof Rab Houston, is professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and project leader for ‘Promoting mental health through the lessons of history’. If you would be interested in hosting the smaller version of the exhibition, further information and contact details are available here.
Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum is still on display at the University of Dundee, Tower Foyer Gallery, University of Dundee, DD1 4HN, until June 9.