An independent foundation in the UK held an exhibit with historical material, medical records, film and art that illustrates society’s shift in perception towards mental illness since the Middle Ages.
Bedlam: The Asylum And Beyond revolved around the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, founded in the 13th century and better known as Bedlam, a word which, over the years, has come to represent the very concept of madness. The exhibition uses the famous Bedlam hospital as both an example and a metaphor of the rise and demise of old-style asylums.
There is still not a clear and unequivocal line that separates the sane from the insane, yet after centuries of research society has devised certain mechanisms, mainly via medical diagnosis, to determine on which side one stands.
Although we still have much to learn about our brain and mind, long gone are the days when mental illness was considered demonic possession. The establishment of asylums, spaces where the insane could find refuge and treatment – and sometimes death – was a decisive development for the evolution of medical science and mental health care.
The Wellcome Foundation was founded in 1936 and its mission is to support scientists and spark debate around public health policy. They routinely host conferences, live events and exhibitions at their London location.
In their official press materials they say about the exhibit, “Today asylums have largely been consigned to history, widely regarded as outmoded, inhumane and haunted places. Meanwhile mental illness is more prevalent than ever, and our culture teems with therapeutic possibilities – yet for many there are no satisfactory options.
Against this background, Bedlam: The Asylum And Beyond interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed.”
One of the most interesting parts of their exhibit was a collection of paintings by artists with personal experience in asylums or institutions of the like. One of the featured artists, Richard Dadd, was an incredibly gifted painter who claimed to receive messages from the ancient Egyptian gods and said he had uncovered a plot by the Pope to have him killed. In 1843, he stabbed his father to death because he thought he was the devil.