Back to the asylum

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The Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition, “Bedlam: the asylum and beyond” asserts a particular take on a central question, the significance of which is easy to overlook due to the sheer volume of thought-provoking material it contains: whether conditions in modern society now require a return to the asylum, albeit a “utopian” one.

The exhibition charts the history of the asylum through the Bethlam hospital, telling its story from its early days as an institution that became synonymous with chaos (“bedlam”), to its current set up at a villa complex site in south London designed to promote “integration not segregation”.

Alongside this picture of progress is contrasted the state of what is described as the “post-asylum world” and its “chaotic marketplace of therapies”. The solution that co-curators Mike Jay and Barbara Rodriguez Munoz offer up in response to this “broad but often inaccessible” range of options is to “reclaim” the asylum as a place of sanctuary and care, a refuge from the stresses of the modern world.

There are many problems with this approach, evident not only from the 150 objects, artworks and archival materials on display but also in what the exhibition leaves out.

The Wellcome Collection describes the exhibition as an exploration of “how medicine, art and culture define mental illness and the big questions it raises about the individual and society”. Meanwhile, key political drivers that determined both the rise and the fall of the asylum are ignored.

The socio-economic context of the Industrial Revolution, leading to the categorisation and exclusion of “non-productive” members of society, escapes comment from the curators but are called to mind by the final drawing in William Hogarth’s series “The Rake’s Progress” which depicts Bethlem inmates behind bars while well-dressed ladies view them for entertainment.

The fact that the asylum system fell as a result of attacks from both the right and the left is interesting, but lumping these together into the same section of the exhibition sidelines important questions about the role of psychiatry and constructs of mental illness.

The exhibition is most powerful where we get to hear the voices of those with lived experience. There are drawings and notes from 1979 by James Tilley Matthews for the second Bethlem building in Southwark, the first mental hospital to be designed by a patient.

There are two samplers that Mary Frances Heaton spent the 37 years of her incarceration in Wakefield asylum continuously sewing to tell her side of the story, having been locked away on charges of “delusions” of an affair with a Lord whose children she was tutoring.

The exhibition is worth visiting for the pieces by Javier Tellez alone, a Venezuelan artist who creates his work in collaboration with psychiatric system survivors. The film Caligari and the Sleepwalker beautifully questions definitions of normality and pathology while mocking the dehumanising bureaucracy of institutional practice.

Whereas the majority of asylum patients left no trace except for their medical records, the voices of the modern survivor movement are strong and clear, yet these are under-represented despite the exhibition’s claim to focus on the perspectives of lived experience.

An audio accompaniment to the exhibition includes a brilliant performance piece by survivor poet Frank Bangay on the development of the Freiern hospital into luxury flats, for example.

The exhibition is undermined by its uncritical promotion of the modern day Bethlem as a progressive therapeutic environment. I have personal experience of how lucky we are in Croydon to have the Bethlem on our doorstep with its mother and baby unit, saving local families from being split up in times of terrible crisis.

At the same time, however, anyone who has spent time on its locked wards or is familiar with the machinations of the over-arching South London and Maudsley Trust knows the continuing problems that are endemic to a system grown out of a structure of institutionalised restraint and social control.

It is heartening to see the exhibition pay tribute to the positive work of survivor movements such as the Hearing Voices Network, but the omission of critical voices is glaring.

No comment on the modern day mental health system can credibly ignore for example issues of coercive treatment or institutionalised discrimination against black men.

It also feels unreal to refer to the rise in mental health support needs without linking this to its very material causes in the targeting of welfare reform, cuts to essential community services and worsening conditions in employment.

The exhibition ends with Madlover: the designer asylum. Through this project, artists Hannah Hull and The Vacuum Cleaner held workshops with 432 people with lived experience of mental distress in a range of settings, and took thousands of suggestions for how a utopian mental health hospital could look and work.

While creating ideas that the current Bethlem could usefully take on board, the project misses the point, which is that if we had the social conditions to make our utopian asylum a reality, then we might very well not actually need one.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond is at the Wellcome Collection, London, until 15 January 2017