Bang goes the Borders

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I exhibited part of the Face to Face exhibition at Bang Goes the Borders on Saturday. This long-running and successful science fair is aimed at children aged 5-13, but it also gets a fair number of older children and adults. It was held this year in St Mary’s School, Melrose.

The organisers handed out 750 goodie-bags with materials related to the 30 exhibitions that were on show. Sometimes I thought all the recipients and their families were crowded into my room! They asked loads of fascinating questions and seemed really engaged. The nineteenth century was incredibly productive of scientific breakthroughs and one of the areas doctors were especially interested in was mental ill-health: they tried to understand, diagnose, categorise, and treat mental disorders of all kinds, often in large institutions called asylums. I used two images of teenagers who were placed in an asylum more than a century ago, to connect with the audience. My exhibition is about the use of asylum photography as a diagnostic, educational, and therapeutic tool, against the background of theories of the mind and brain which may seem strange to modern eyes. These included Phrenology, which sought to read character and intellect from the shape of the skull, and Physiognomy, which proposed that these same things could be seen in a person’s face. I brought along my phrenology head, which was a source of much curiosity; I call it Dr Fowler after the New York psychiatrist who invented it. The exhibition also tried to open up the material world that science had created in the late Victorian age, both good and bad: industry and trade flourished in the big towns, but with this came social problems like poor sanitation, overcrowding, child labour, and poverty that would take many years to overcome. Medical science struggled to understand the mind, taking some paths that would lead to future advances – and some others that were dead ends. But above all the exhibition was designed to inform and to help people today look compassionately on those with mental ill-health in the past, and to bring that knowledge and sympathy to the present.

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