Museums can help people with mental ill-health

Victoria Northwood, Issue 116/07, p15, 01.07.2016
Mental health continues to be widely contested, and can be challenging for museums to engage with
In 2012 I reviewed a collection of essays titled Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display, for Museums Journal. The book was published when the design process for the permanent exhibition at Bethlem’s Museum of the Mind was underway, and it was heartening that the conclusions of the academic research, broadly speaking, coincided with our curatorial team’s instincts. Namely, any approach to the history of psychiatry seen through the lens of an institutional history risks excluding the voices of those for whom the institution was intended to care, and that an evolutionary approach to the history of mental healthcare and treatment can result in a misleading contrast between the horrors of the past and the wonders of the enlightened present.

Bethlem’s displays include a brief chronological account of the hospital’s long history, but this is deliberately placed outside the gallery spaces. The permanent exhibition instead considers mental healthcare, past and present, through a series of themes, including Labelling and Diagnosis, Freedom and Constraint, and Heal or Harm?

This thematic approach, as well as avoiding any implication that mental healthcare has been on an ever-improving trajectory since the middle ages, has removed the focus from Bethlem and allowed the designers to make use of a much wider range of material from the collections.

Mental health continues to be widely contested, and can be challenging for museums to engage with. Institutions not based within a hospital environment must rely on developing successful partnerships to gain access to clinical expertise and people with lived experience, while those embedded within an NHS trust or charitable body run the risk of their impartial curatorial voice being put under pressure to be “on-message”.

Museum staff without lived experience should expect to be challenged by people with direct experience of mental ill-health – experts in the subject in a way academics and professional curators never can be. Museums can support people with mental ill-health by creating welcoming and inclusive spaces; by providing ways to interact with others, helping to reduce isolation; and by offering supported volunteering roles to enable those unable to commit to regular paid work as a result of their ill-health to continue using their skills and making a contribution.

For a museum such as Bethlem, whose primary focus is mental health, what is gained from the service users who choose to become involved is far greater than what is offered. The generosity of those who volunteered their time and expertise, shared their personal stories and contributed their art to support the development of Bethlem Museum of the Mind is humbling. Being shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016 is a tribute to them all.

Victoria Northwood is the former director of Bethlem Museum of the Mind