Being at Bethlem

Olivia Bladen reports on her internship at the Bethlem Hospital Museum and Archives, offered as part of Birkbeck’s MA in Victorian Studies. During her time there, she looked into ‘over-study’ as a trigger for madness.On my first day at Bethlem Museum of the Mind archivist Colin Gale gives me a tour through the stacks, beginning with an important disclaimer. When I ask about personal ephemera left behind by former patients, such as letters – a common question, I later find out – he explains that this is not the nature of the records kept by the hospital, and that medical case-notes are about as personal as they get. I realise this makes sense: it would be invasive for the hospital systematically to collect personal affects in this way. But Colin understands why I asked. The history of Bethlem psychiatric hospital – or ‘Bedlam’, as it was notoriously known, giving us the colloquialism for ‘chaos’ still in use to this day – is sprawling, and often unsavoury. It brings to mind untold cruelties and tragedies, as we imagine the lost histories of misunderstood and mistreated residents. The desire to hear their stories, from their own points of view, is one most visitors to the museum and archives will feel.

However, as Colin pulls out Victorian admissions registers and case books, I realise that although I will have to do some reading between the lines, this may be a far more rewarding endeavour than I anticipated. Already, I can see stories unfolding in spidery handwriting, emerging through snippets of just a few sentences long. I’m particularly interested in a column in the general admission registers, the first recorded contact a patient would have with Bethlem, citing their ‘supposed cause of insanity’. This was to become the basis of my independent research, after I notice the term ‘over study’ crops up repeatedly. For the next six weeks, I go through every register from 1853 to 1888, noting down the details of each patient recorded with this given ‘cause’, then selecting specific case notes to explore further. I consult the writing of Dr George Savage, chief medical officer at Bethlem within my period, and many other Victorian psychiatrists, to try and understand how the term ‘over study’ was used. I even get to meet a current doctor from the hospital, Deji, who has been researching the same topic in his own time for twelve years. We are in agreement that concept of ‘over study’ was, even in the nineteenth century, not understood as an underlying cause of mental health issues, but as a trigger.  Nevertheless, the abundance of the term in the records speaks of the anxieties that existed in the popular imagination around the time of industrial revolution and education reform.     

In addition to its paper archive, the Bethlem also boasts an impressive material collection in the museum upstairs. I find out that in its current iteration, situated in what was formerly the hospital’s administration building, it is only a few years old. In 1970, ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum’, as it was then known, was housed in a much smaller structure – and, to all intents and purposes, was an archive rather than a museum, since there was so little room for display. But in 2015, it moved to its more spacious home, and in an impressive feat that rewards its ambition, was shortlisted for Museum of the Year Award the very next year.

It doesn’t take long for me to meet the team, which is very small. Colin tells me that unlike larger organisations, here everybody does a bit of everything, and no day is ever the same. Although I can see this is hard, I am drawn to this way of working. I’m fascinated by the questions and problems each and everybody fields each day. The reading room, which also serves as Colin’s office, seems to be a hub of activity.  On Tuesdays, volunteer Charlotte deals with copyright issues, phoning round for permission to show artworks either in displays or on the website. Another volunteer, Barbara, helps Colin respond to archival enquiries by locating obscure references that may or may not exist somewhere within the pages of meeting minutes or case notes. She is trained in reading eighteenth and nineteenth-century handwriting, and often helps me decipher tricky passages that look like little more than inkblots to me.  Other days, I observe Learning Officer Caroline Smith deliver some public programming: a workshop around patient consent given to students on a psychology course; and the museum’s first audio-described tour of the collection for blind and partially-sighted visitors.

I’m keen to get more involved. I’ve arrived at the end of one exhibition and in time for the installation of Scaling the Citadel: The Art of Stanley Lench, which showcases his psychedelic, stained-glass influenced images that speak of beauty and celebrity. As part of the programming around the exhibition, Bethlem are running what they call ‘Fame and Misfortune’ tours, in which volunteers will give a five-minute talk about a famous resident or person associated with Bethlem. They’re looking for someone to give a talk on Charlotte Brontë – as a Victorian scholar, I feel I ought to step in. The talk is on a Saturday, given after a short tour of the museum by Colin. I explain how it’s thought that Brontë visited Bethlem when it was located in Lambeth, on one of her jaunts to London shortly before her death – but we can’t be sure, since she did not sign her name in the visitor book.

My talk leaves me feeling better prepared for the presentation I will give on my research this July, and it also reinforces my reluctance to leave Bethlem, as I’m caught up in the atmosphere of the Saturday opening. I bump into new director Suzie Walker-Millar, who offers me the opportunity to work on a project where I consult with volunteers about frequently-asked visitor questions to help improve training. I’m also looking forward to joining them as a front-of-house volunteer as soon as I can; and developing a learning resource with Caroline. My research project is over, but I’m not ready for my experience at Bethlem to end. I came there looking for its stories – now I hope I can be one of them.

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One thought on “Being at Bethlem

  1. Brilliant. I worked at the Bethlem Royal promoting working in the field of mental health and used the archive, then housed in a small space, to engage the public’s interest. Olivia’s work is further incentive to bring the extraordinary history to a wider constituency.
    Many thanks.

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