New Wellcome Collection exhibition tells the story of 'Bedlam' and mental healthcare through time

By Jon Bauckham, 15 September 2016 - 11:46am

Jon Bauckham paid a visit to London’s Wellcome Collection to attend the launch of major new exhibition Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond, which looks at how approaches to mental healthcare have changed over the centuries

Jon Bauckham is Staff Writer at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 15 September 2016
Jon Bauckham, staff writer
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Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond, the Wellcome Collection
The Wellcome Collection's latest exhibition features over 150 objects and archival materials, including artworks from patients and contemporary artists (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

In 1837, a young music teacher named Mary Frances Heaton was sent to Wakefield Asylum, suffering from “delusions of an affair” with Lord Seymour, the father of two of her pupils. Undeterred and unwilling to accept her condition, Mary created a series of elaborate, embroidered letters – addressed directly to Queen Victoria – protesting against her confinement.

These fascinating messages represent just a small portion of the archive material featured in a new exhibition that opens at the Wellcome Collection today, exploring the history of mental healthcare from the 13th century to the present.

Using the Royal Bethlem Hospital as a case study, Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond offers a uniquely human perspective on the topic. Preserved in the popular imagination as 'Bedlam', we discover how the famous institution gradually evolved from an 18th-century "madhouse" into a 19th-century asylum and 20th-century mental hospital – each incarnation a radical improvement upon its predecessor.

The Rake's Progress, William Hogarth, British Museum
A nightmarish scene from Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, showing visitors inside the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Images such as these gave rise to the term 'Bedlam' being used as a byword for chaos and disorder (Credit: Trustees of the British Museum)

That’s not to say that the exhibition shies away from the failings of each system and the disturbing treatments our ancestors would have endured. Within an early section of the display devoted to Bedlam’s 18th-century site in Moorfields, there are scenes from William Hogarth’s series of illustrations A Rake’s Progress. Here the institution is depicted as a Georgian horror show, where visitors would pay to gawk at patients as if they were in a zoo.

Moving through the exhibition space, visitors get to see more unsettling artefacts from the past: electroconvulsive therapy apparatus from the 1920s; photographs of Victorian straitjackets; promotional material for strange antipsychotic drugs.

On a wall adjacent to Mary Frances Heaton’s embroidery, there are scathing critiques of the asylum system created by patients themselves, amplifying the voices of people who are too often left voiceless.

John Gilmour Confessional Press Dumfries and Galloway Libraries
A 1910 illustration by John Gilmour, a patient at Gartnavel Asylum and Crichton Royal Hospital, who strongly criticised the system that confined him (Credit: Dumfries and Galloway Libraries, Information and Archives/Dumfries and Galloway Health Board)

Unveiling the exhibition to the press on Wednesday, guest curator Mike Jay said it aimed to tell the story from different angles.

“We’ve presented these worlds – the vision that they embodied and the reality – not only through the eyes of the architects that designed them and the doctors that ran them, but also the patients that inhabited them, the reformers that criticised them and the perceptions that formed around them in popular culture,” he said.

“We’ve balanced the clinical gaze of medical illustrators and pioneering photographers with work that returns that gaze.”

Despite the scandal and failure that often dominates the history of mental health in Britain, the exhibition ultimately shows how each new phase of Bedlam was driven by the ancient ideal of the asylum as a space for sanctuary, care and wellbeing – not incarceration.

This is evident within the original designs for the Bethlem Royal Hospital’s 19th-century site in Southwark, submitted by patient James Tilly Matthews. According to Wellcome Collection co-curator, Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, Matthews' drawings and accompanying writings were “the first plans for a mental hospital designed by a patient and aimed to turn the hospital into a community in which everybody had a stake”.

James Tilly Matthews Royal Bethlem Hospital 1810
Architectural plans for the new Royal Bethlem Hospital buildings, submitted by patient James Tilly Matthews in 1810 (Credit: Bethlem Museum of the Mind)

Rather than simply pointing a finger at what our ancestors got ‘wrong’, the exhibition looks beyond the nightmarish visions we traditionally associate with the subject matter. Although quarantining people from wider society is now a thing of the past, we’re encouraged to seek parallels between the old and the new.

A physical manifestation of this idea exists in the art installation Madlove, which visitors see at the far end of the main gallery. Created following consultations with more than 300 people with lived experience of mental distress, the colourful sculpture depicts a ‘designer asylum’ of the future, drawing upon the same utopian visions underpinning each version of Bedlam.

Madlove Wellcome Collection
Created through consultations with more than 300 people with lived experiences of mental distress, Madlove imagines a 'designer asylum' of the future (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

As family historians, we sometimes think about the experiences of our forebears as being alien to our own. Dramatic changes in public health policy – driven by shifting social attitudes – force us to view the actions of previous generations as myopic and primitive. But sometimes we have more in common than you might have been led to believe. 


Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond is on display at the Wellcome Collection until 17 January 2017.

Some of the items in the exhibition are available to view for free online as part of the Wellcome Library's ongoing mental health digitisation project. Click here to find out more.


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