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Artist Richard Dadd, a patient at Bethlem (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

The name Bedlam is so evocative of chaos and madness, the real history of one of the world’s oldest institutions for the treatment of mental illness often gets detached from its public presence. Bethlem Royal Hospital, which still operates as part of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, has had a museum since 1970, but it was long cramped into a small space without proper room for a history that dates back to 1247 CE. Last month, it reopened as the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in the former administrative building of the hospital in London’s south suburban Bromley.

Led by architect Fraser Brown MacKenna, the new space is four times as large as its previous home, with permanent gallery areas, temporary exhibition facilities, all free to the public. The Bethlem Museum of the Mind also joins the historic archives with Bethlem Gallery, which since 1997 has been exhibiting and supporting artists who were or are patients at the hospital. The building with its broad staircases and bright windows was the final home of the hospital, which started in Bishopgate, then relocated to Moorfields, before its massive home in Southwark that now houses the Imperial War Museum. When it relocated to Bromley in 1930, the treatment of mental illness was in a state of reform, moving away from the more horrific and sometimes violent conditions of the 18th and 19th century. For periods in earlier eras up to 1770, the public could even pay to view the “lunatics” as a sort of spectacle.

The “Raving” & “Melancholy Madness” statues by Caius Gabriel Cibber (1676) at the entryway to the newly opened Museum of the Mind (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

On entering the new museum, two reminders of this noxious past are positioned on either side of a staircase. Sculpted by Caius Gabriel Cibber in 1676, the “Raving” and “Melancholy Madness” sculptures writhe like afflicted versions of the “Dying Gaul,” one with chains on his hands. According to the Guardian‘s report on the reopened museum, these statues traveled three times with the hospital, from Moorfields to Bromley, each time positioned on a gate or plinth as a sort of advertisement. The manacles and confinements of Bedlam’s past are included in the displays, but the emphasis is much more on its role as pioneering longterm care for mental instabilities, as well as the patients themselves. Especially strong is a presence of art from the patients, giving a personal perspective on a history that’s often only viewed from those administering treatment.

An inaugural exhibition on the late Bryan Charnley’s paintings is in a new gallery devoted to temporary shows. Charnley, who used art to express the physical state of his schizophrenia, was in turn inspired by historic work in the Bethlem collection, writing: “Here I saw art stripped of all esoteric and conceptual pretensions.”

The permanent collection has work by artists like Richard Dadd, who in the 19th century painted incredibly detailed scenes often depicting fairies (he was institutionalized after killing his father); Jonathan Martin, who was known for his biblical scenes (he was infamous for arson at York Minster); and Louis Wain, best known for his wide-eyed anthropomorphic cats, including those he later encountered in the garden of Bedlam at Southwark (he was a professional artist before arriving at the institution). The stigma of mental illness and institutional care still very much exists, but the museum aims to demonstrate the therapeutic role of Bedlam, and especially the human experience beyond a name that is still synonymous with madness, through the creativity of its patients.

Cats painted by Louis Wain (1860–1936) (via Wikimedia)

Exterior of the Bedlam administration building, now the Museum of the Mind (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

Archive photograph of the exterior of the Bethlem Hospital administration building (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

Archive photograph inside the administration building of Bethlem Hospital (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

Archive photograph inside the administration building of Bethlem Hospital (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

The new exhibition space in the Museum of the Mind (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

Charlotte Johnson Wahl’s “It Has Not Worked” (1947) in the Museum of the Mind (courtesy Bethlem Gallery and Museum)

Bethlem Museum of the Mind (Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, England) is open free to the public. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...