Bedlam Part 1: A corrupt freak show?

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Just how bad was Bedlam?  The next two podcasts in the series explore the iconic Bethlem Hospital  – what was special about Bethlem, was it typical of developing institutional provision, and does it really  tell us about the way insanity was cared for in the past?  In  today’s blog post, Rab Houston recalls his recent visit to the fourth and most modern incarnation of Bethlem Hospital.

Bethlem Hospital is the oldest public madhouse in Britain and has been caring for people with mental disorders for at least the last 600 years. It is an icon of the history of psychiatry and (in a corrupted form) gave its name to places of madness in general: Bedlam. It is the subject of many misconceptions and my podcast series devotes two episodes to explaining what it was really like. My podcasts are being used by both the Bethlem Museum of the Mind and the Wellcome Library, as part of separate current exhibitions about the history of Bethlem. Together, we hope we are helping to change awareness of mental illness and its treatment in the past and present.

While I was preparing to record this podcast and the next I visited the fourth and most modern incarnation of Bethlem Hospital, which is in leafy Beckenham (Kent). I met the curator of its museum, Colin Gale, and his knowledgeable and friendly staff, to discuss how they might use the Bethlem podcasts in particular and the whole series, to enrich their already excellent displays.

Cibber’s life-size statues of melancholy and raving madness, carved in 1680 for the new hospital building at Moorfields, greet you at the foot of the stairs to the main exhibition halls. The museum deals with the history of the establishment and it also examines contemporary mental healthcare issues. Exhibits include films and discussions about certain aspects of healthcare, especially those which may be misunderstood by the general public (such as Electro-Convulsive Therapy and Sectioning procedure for compulsory admission to a mental hospital). Historical exhibits include restrains to prevent patients harming themselves and others, and parts of a padded cell. There are also paintings by both famous and lesser known patients. Art was a type of therapy pioneered in the eighteenth century; it still much employed today. The collection has many fine (sometimes frightening) paintings and other artistic works made by patients. On the ground floor there are examples by the current patients (the museum is in one building of many on the site, which is still a functioning mental hospital). The museum handles controversies over the treatment of mental illness in a sensitive and open-minded way, balancing sometimes radically different perspectives and allowing visitors to make up their own minds. The most thought-provoking and humbling example is an interview with someone suffering from anorexia; at the end you have to decide whether it would be justifiable to detain her against her will for treatment. There is an emphasis on positive elements like recovery – which is what Bethlem has always really been about, in spite of its popular image as a horrific freak show. The Museum provides a fascinating account of an aspect of the human condition we tend to shrink away from and it combines both sombre and hopeful insights into an increasingly important, yet neglected field of healthcare.


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