Established in 1997, The Bethlem Gallery and Museum is open to the public, free of charge and is located on the grounds of The Bethlem Royal Hospital, previously known by the name of ‘Bedlam’. Dating back to 1247, it is believed to be the oldest psychiatric institution in the world. Treating patients for nearly eight centuries, the gallery is a not-for-profit organisation that is run by a small group of artists and receives funding from the Maudsley Charity and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Running workshops and artist talks, the gallery aims to incorporate the idea of mental health with the contemporary attributes and positive nature of art, and presents them to the wider community to raise awareness of both hospital and patient. Mental Health needs promotion and Bethlem are assuring that the acknowledgement of power within art is visible from all possible angles, from social media i.e. Instagram and Twitter, to being based in the most vibrant and fast-paced cities in the UK.
With one in four people diagnosed with a mental illness each year (www.mind.org.uk), it is important to recognise the platforms that are in place to support those suffering with their mental health. One of which being art psychotherapy. Art therapy is a way in which an individual can use art as a primary foundation of communication and expression. Not to be ‘viewed just as a visual culture but as an essential human process of self-exploration’ (Grayson Perry, Patron of Bethlem Gallery and Museum). The works produced within a typical therapy session are not usually the kind to be exhibited due to their highly personal and involved content, however, Bethlem Gallery have taken a step towards changing this preconception of delving into a troubled mind by permanently putting on display a significant collection of art works and artefacts that are not only created by outsider artists but many of the patients themselves.
Could this raise the question of whether the patients/artists know before starting a piece of work that it will in fact be exhibited? If so, does this potentially alter the outcome? Supressing or even exaggerating the true feelings or motivations behind the artwork?
One artist and resident of the hospital, William Kurelek produced The Maze (1953), a painting that was to illustrate the order of events that led to his mental state and the key moments in his life that exposed him to have a vulnerable position within society. Perhaps with the knowledge that his work may later be on display to the public could possibly result in a ‘blinkered’ effect and taint his outburst of experiences – only presenting his audience with situations considered publically acceptable.
A hospital environment is saturated with regulation; with every aspect of activities scheduled, prepared and prescribed to the point of restriction and confinement. One artist, Dan Duggan, who is also a patient at The Bethlem Royal Hospital speaks to the BBC (Bethlem Hospital Museum shows how art can help mental health, 18/02/15) and suggests that because of the regulated and prescribed nature of a hospital environment, the opportunity to create and produce art works is liberating by contrast. Duggan’s intentions were simply to ‘fill time’ when first picking up a pencil, however it soon became a means of freedom and expression. Giving him possession of a free rein to fully express his thoughts and emotions through making. Duggan believes that “if the 20th century was the century of the body, then the 21st century should be the century of the mind”. This article from the BBC does not only shine a light on the artists that exhibit their works but also strengthens our understanding of the aspirations of The Bethlem Gallery and Museum and how in fact, they strive to raise questions and possibly even arguments amongst the visitors of the gallery. Being that the issues introduced to us as visitors are not straight forward and easily understood, opinions and discussions are vital as a way of trying to understand – allowing its audience to gain an insight of the struggles that have become the underpinning concepts and narratives behind the works.
Presenter Samira Ahmed (BBC Radio 4) delves into the history and ambitions of The Bethlem Gallery and Museum with Psychiatrist, Dr David O’Flynn and curator Victoria Northwood. Whilst discussing the relationship between art and mental health, O’Flynn suggests that “the art works (shown in the gallery) are not an insight of the mental illness, but an insight of the person and how they recover”. But conceivably, this could be argued against the history that lay beneath the much more sinister era of The Bethlem Royal Hospital.
Dating back to the 1700s, it is known that The Bethlem Royal Hospital has always run purely on donations and the charity of the people within the community. However, it’s also been suggested that people would visit the site to look around – not for the purpose of medical reference or architectural interest but with the hope that “patients would ‘act up’, ‘perform’ and entertain” (Dr Jonathan Andrews, Newcastle University). The unfamiliar territory and behaviour of the patients were seen as something to look at, and Bethlem became somewhere to go whilst in London for a form of entertainment. This was also the case for Bethlem’s Sister Hospital, Bridewell, for people to witness the whippings from a public viewing gallery.
Could it be criticised that people are still intrigued by the works of the patients of Bethlem Royal Hospital and the way their minds may or may not function, in the same ways as those who were to visit the psychiatric institution in the early 1700s? Perhaps The Bethlem Gallery is a social construction for visitors to naturally find a meaning within an artwork, giving us, it’s audience something to observe and examine. Maybe this can be seen as the most intrusive way into someone’s most fragile state of mind. Obviously, we must take into consideration that this is an art platform, and artists and curators only proceed to work in the public eye if indeed they choose to.
The Bethlem Gallery and Museum has developed alongside the evolution of the cultural norms and values that we are taught within today’s society. We are told that ‘staring’ is rude and to look away when something shouldn’t be witnessed. However, do we truly listen to these instructions when faced with a situation which is out of the ordinary? Curiosity into the unknown gathers an audience, and organisations and institutions like The Bethlem Gallery are perhaps in place to satisfy our need, and feed our subconscious hunger.
(2015). Bethlem royal hospital. [online]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethlem_Royal_Hospital [Accessed 15 November 2015].
(n.d.). The art of recovery - south London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust. [online]. Available from: http://www.slam.nhs.uk/about-us/art-and-history/the-art-of-recovery [Accessed 15 November 2015].
(2009). Koestler trust exhibitions | Southbank | Scotland | wales | north west | midlands. [online]. Available from: http://www.koestlertrust.org.uk/pages/exhibitions.html [Accessed 15 November 2015].
(n.d.). Home. [online]. Available from: http://bethlemgallery.com/ [Accessed 7 January 2016].
(n.d.). [online]. Available from: http://museumofthemind.org.uk/collections/archives [Accessed 25 January 2016].
(n.d.). Visiting Bethlem - 18TH century. [online]. Available from: http://learning.museumofthemind.org.uk/visiting-bethlem/ [Accessed 25 January 2016].
(n.d.). Explore Bethlem. [online]. Available from: http://learning.museumofthemind.org.uk/explore-bethlem/ [Accessed 25 January 2016].
Bethlem Gallery and Museum Launch Video(2015).
BBC. (2015). Bethlem hospital museum shows how art can help mental health. BBC Health. [online] 18 . February 2015. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-31506647 [Accessed 27 January 2016].
BBC. (2015). Marigold hotel director John Madden, the museum of the mind, Kwabs, Maidan, front row - BBC radio 4. BBC. 18 February.
(2014). How common are mental health problems? | mind, the mental health charity - help for mental health problems. [online]. Available from: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/ [Accessed 29 January 2016].
(2010). AIM25 collection description. [online]. Available from: http://www.aim25.ac.uk/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=16558&inst_id=118 [Accessed 29 January 2016].
(2001). Background - Bridewell prison and hospital. [online]. Available from: http://www.londonlives.org/static/Bridewell.jsp [Accessed 29 January 2016].
Jones, E. and Rahman, S. (2008). The Maudsley hospital and the Rockefeller foundation: The impact of philanthropy on research and training. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Vol.64. No.3. pp.273–299.
Pym, H. (2016). Rise in serious incidents at English mental health trusts. BBC Health. [online] 26 . January 2016. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35403827 [Accessed 27 January 2016].
The Guardian. (n.d.). Bethlem gallery index | society | SocietyGuardian.co.uk. The Guardian. [online]Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/society/gall/0,,1822634,00.html [Accessed 25 January 2016].