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Psychiatric museums and the history of psychiatry

Posted Nov 06 2009 10:01pm

Psychiatric museums have come a long way since their early days. Before the 1980s, private collections of aficionados made up the field. Since then, several psychiatric museums have emerged. Today, these institutions have turned into modern museums creating numerous exhibitions and reaching large audiences. The most successful of the psychiatric museums have more than 140.000 visitors a year. In addition, collaboration between various psychiatric museums has become an important issue, especially for the museums in Europe. In June 2009, the joint project “Connecting the European Mind” was approved by the Education, Audiovisual and Cultural Executive Agency (EACEA) This project will lead to a number of multilateral initiatives in the period 2009-2011. Furthermore, international conferences play an important role in the exchange of information between the museums.

Last week the city of Prague hosted one of these conferences. Participants of 19 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, North and South America showed up at Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital to attend the 2nd International Conference on Psychiatric Museums and History of Psychiatry (Oct. 29-31, 2009). The Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital and the city of Prague had a special interest in arranging the conference. As Ivan David and Dagmar Zaludová explained at the conference, a new international exhibition “Mental Illness in the Course of Ages” has been scheduled to be held at the National Museum of Prague in 2010. This exhibition is also intended to be part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Psychiatric Hospital in Prague-Bohnice. The exhibition will be located in two halls of 278 m2 and 253 m2 and in the foyer (431 m2) in a new building of the National Museum in close vicinity to the Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague.

Besides the upcoming exhibition in Prague, a wide range of historical and museological topics were discussed at the conference. A key theme that emerged from the discussions was the relationship between art and psychiatry. Art played, some way or another, an important role for all the museums represented at the conference. Psychiatric museums such as Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum (UK), The Museum, Psychiatric Hospital in Aarhus (Denmark), The Unconscious Museum (Brazil), and The Museum Dr. Guislain (Belgium) all have large collections of psychiatric art (often referred to as “ outsider art ” or “ l’art brut “. At the congress Kate Forde, curator of the Wellcome Collection in London, presented the project “Madness and Modernity, Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900”, , and Tatiana Goncalves (Brazil), Mia Lejsted (Denmark), Hans Looijen of Het Dolhuys (Haarlem, NE) and Rolf Brüggemann, director of MuSeele in Göppingen (Germany), touched on similar subjects. The Minds Museum (Museo Laboratorio della Mente) in Rome has worked together with Studio Azzurro, a Milan-based art collective that works with interactive and video environments. In October 2008, the Minds Museum reopened after a high-tech overhaul by Studio Azzuro. In Prague, Martelli Pompeo talked about the new exhibition of Museo Laboratorio della Mente and showed a psychiatric history film made by the Rome museum. Not only artwork and film but also music is an essential element of the very popular museum, Sultan Bayezid II Health Museum in Edirne, Turkey. In Edirne visitors of the museum can listen to music (played by a live orchestra) that once was part of music therapy at the old Ottoman hospital. The Edirne museum has won a number of awards, including the Council of Europe Museum Award in 2004.

Apart from the relationship between art and psychiatry, the issue of how to exhibit the history of psychiatry was a central theme at the conference in Prague. The physical settings of psychiatric museums today are diverse. Some museums, such as Het Dolhuys in Haarlem and the Museum in Aarhus, have very large and unique historic buildings for their exhibitions, whereas others, such as Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum, have small buildings and restricted facilities. In order to reach a larger audience, Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum has specialised in running off-site exhibitions. At the conference in Prague, Michael Phillips of Bethlem Museum talked about the pros and cons of doing off-site exhibitions.

Christina Vanja of the “ Landeswohlfahrtsverband Hessen ” elaborated over the many memorials, archives and museums in the German Federal State of Hesse. The mental hospitals in Hesse were involved in the Nazi “Euthanasia-Program”, and approximately 20.000 patients of Hessian hospitals were killed in the period 1940 to 1945. The central memorial for the victims in Hesse is in Hadamar.

At the same time as the Action T4 was carried out in Germany, family care reached its highest level in the Belgium town Geel. Bert Boeckx of the Public Psychiatric Care Centre in Geel (OPZ) outlined the long and fascinating story of family care in Geel. In September 2009, a permanent exhibition on the history of psychiatric foster care was established in Geel. In the last presentation of the conference, Pavel Kalvach and Zdenek Kalvach gave a thorough account of the troubled history of dementia; a story in which Prague physician Oskar Fischer played an important role.

Ivan David, Dagmar Zaludová, and other employees of Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital had done an excellent job of arranging the conference. The next conference will be held in 2011. For anyone interested in reading more about psychiatric museums, I recommend the book by Rolf Brüggemann and Gisela Smid-Krebs, “ Locating the Soul. Museums of Psychiatry in Europe ” (Mabuse Verlag 2007)

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