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.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,

The Seasons in Quincy UK release

On 23 June The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, a film produced by Birkbeck’s Derek Jarman lab, will be released in the UK and Ireland, screening in cinemas in London, Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol, among others. It will also be available online via Curzon Home Cinema, and a DVD will come out in August. Lily Ford, Deputy Director of the Derek Jarman Lab and producer of the film, explains the significance of the film’s cinematic release for research-based film-making.

siq_ukquad_master_medThe Seasons in Quincy is the first feature-length documentary to be produced by the Derek Jarman Lab, Birkbeck’s audiovisual hub, and was made by graduate students there (Lily Ford, Bartek Dziadosz and Walter Stabb) in collaboration with Tilda Swinton, Christopher Roth, Simon Fisher Turner and Colin MacCabe.

The Seasons started out as a film-making exercise, and the open-endedness of the project as it evolved over several years allowed for a great degree of creative freedom and experiment. We were extremely lucky to have the goodwill of John Berger, and the close involvement of Tilda Swinton. We travelled to the Alps as a capsule crew, conducting our shoots as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible and without a script or fixed shotlist, then spent a long time editing each part of the film. It took two years to find the right edit for the first part of the film, ‘Ways of Listening’; we then used this to raise funds for three more chapters from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Pannonia Foundation, via the University of Pittsburgh. The nature of the funding, and our home within Birkbeck, enabled the Lab to give the process the necessary time, and to involve other Birkbeck students in filming, editing and disseminating the finished film.

Over 2016 the film had a vigorous festivals run, and was distributed in the US and Canada, making us realise that there was a wider audience and some commercial potential for it. We were really delighted to get UK and Ireland distribution this year, both as recognition of the quality of the film, and to enable a broader public around the two countries to watch it on big and small screens. It is almost unprecedented for a British university to produce a feature film that is commercially viable; Birkbeck and the Derek Jarman Lab have done this.

John Berger’s humanist commitment, accessible erudition and generosity of spirit is already well known, and it gives all of us great pleasure to have preserved this in the film, now that he is no longer with us. He was of course no stranger to the camera, and we were able to draw on his broadcast past in The Seasons; in this respect the film consists of many more than four portraits. The essayistic approach we took, a hallmark of the Lab’s modus operandi, makes the film very different from a classic biographical documentary and allows space for quite unique forms of engagement with Berger’s work. The critical reception of the film, as well as the warm audience response, confirms that it is a necessary and rewarding approach.

It is this kind of filmmaking – collaborative, innovative and intellectually engaged – that a university-based organisation such as the Derek Jarman Lab can undertake. We continue to advocate for research-based filmmaking, reaching out to graduate students and faculty at Birkbeck and encouraging them to think with film. While digital video and online platforms have made the moving image a very accessible medium for research output, the success of The Seasons in Quincy shows there is also scope for more long-form and cinematic enterprises from within the academic environment.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , ,

New film explores the link between Kew Gardens collections and the Amazon

This article was written by Dr Luciana Martins from Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages

boatKew Gardens holds fascinating artefacts collected by the botanist and explorer Richard Spruce, who travelled in South America in the nineteenth century. I am about to embark on a 10-day workshop with indigenous peoples in the Amazon based on this collection,  and so decided to seize this opportunity to take up the camera  and produce my first research-led film.

The purpose of filming was twofold. First I wanted to explore the potential of film to elicit memories and stories of the indigenous peoples participating in the workshop about specific artefacts of Kew’s collection. The second was to tell the story of one of these artefacts in a way that she could convey cinematically the contrasting environments of the object’s life.

Now, in collaboration with the Derek Jarman Lab (DJL), a research and film-making hub based at Birkbeck, I have released The Many Lives of a Shield, a short film that follows the story of one of these artefacts.

I participated in a DJL filming workshop with Bartek Dziadosz and Bea Moyes, which demystified the process of filmmaking, giving me confidence to go ahead with my project. The partnership with Bea worked really well, and the whole film-making experience opened-up a new way of working, seeing and thinking, which I’m still getting to terms with.

I am currently organizing a roundtable during Arts Week entitled ‘Telling object stories: film, peoples and plants in the Amazon,’ in which I will discuss with Bea Moyes and Bartek Dziadosz the potential of film to produce new insights into arts and humanities research – watch this space!

Watch The Many Lives of a Shield

Find out more

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , ,

Speculative Aesthetics: Freeports as the Art Caves of High Finance

This article was written by Neil Fitzgerald, winner of the inaugural Verso Prize for Cultural and Critical Studies. Speculative Aesthetics: Freeports as the Art Caves of High Finance is a selection from the winning dissertation and was originally published on the Verso Books blog.


Fig. 1. Cave art from Lascaux

In a lecture given on January 18, 1955 in Orléans, the French writer and anthropologist Georges Bataille suggested that the paintings discovered at the Lascaux caves in France in 1940 announce the presence of man on earth –  man ‘appeared on earth with art’. The paintings are figurative – ibex, bison, mammoth rhinos, often in the process of being hunted by arrows (Fig. 1) – and Bataille suggests they reveal a magic-oriented desire for ‘assuring miraculous hunts’. He acknowledges the irony of how this discovery of ‘our birth’ is being made at a time when ‘the notion of our death appears to us’ in the guise of atomic experiments in the atolls of the Pacific.

What Bataille repeatedly stresses in this lecture is the relation of these prehistoric artworks to a form of ‘wealth’. One problematic he addresses is the inability of the contemporary visitor to discover these primitive artworks without the ‘present-day world’ following the viewer into the ancient cave. He highlights the parallels between the cave entrance at Lascaux and a Paris subway station, complete with admission tickets, bookstore and postcards. Bataille retraces the moment three 15-year-old boys re-discovered the cave network and art in September 1940.  He quotes one of the boys describing their discovery in terms of discovering treasure – ‘a casket of diamonds or a cascade of precious gems’; they thought that their fortune had been made. Bataille continues: ‘If we suddenly enter this world, the oldest one that man has created, we are seized by a feeling of fabulous wealth’. Their translation of this stupefying event into this language, Bataille argues, is because the feeling of personal wealth is the strongest feeling a human can have: ‘Lascaux is…rich to the point of dazzling us.’ In contrast to such riches is the poverty of his contemporaneous world, wherein everything is submitted to the control of profitability with one exception: ‘the engineering and materials of destruction, works that today threaten to exterminate the species.’ Bataille suggests that if we see ourselves in the beings who created the cave art, it is because they offer us this feeling of wealth, a feeling undermined by the poverty of the present-day which accompanies the latter-day visitor. Linking the marvellous with material wealth, Bataille posits the connection between art and economics lies in the fact that a work of art requires labour to be produced: ‘the work of art is wealth expended without utility.’ ‘The feeling of richness’ and the fact of ‘being dazzled’ are symbiotically entangled.

Since Bataille’s lecture, the interrelationship between art and ‘feelings of wealth’ has taken on a substantively different meaning. In 2012, global sales of art were estimated at more than £40 billion. The richness of this symbiosis is usefully demonstrated by the rise of the Freeport (Fig. 2), secure warehouse complexes which are said to house millions of works of art, although the confidentiality afforded by these locations means precise numbers and their value are impossible to come by.


Fig. 2. Le Freeport, Luxembourg

Freeports have garnered a reputation as ‘fortresses of art’ and ‘bunkers of the super-rich’ which operate as speculative safe-houses and galleries for the wealthy to shop in. It is noticeable how a martial figurative language is used to describe them as protection against potential attack. The website of Le FREEPORT in Luxembourg suggests clients choose their warehouse complex ‘to best preserve goods from theft, depredations, and climatic aggressions’. It is telling, however, that the locations of these warehouse complexes – Geneva, Luxembourg – are all in financial tax havens, suggesting that what they really offer protection against is an attack by the taxman. The key here is that the goods are technically in transit, and as such, are exempt from a raft of customs duties. The ‘port’ location ensures confidentiality, ‘not much scrutiny, the ability to hide behind nominees, and an array of tax advantages’, ultimately transfiguring these zones of transit into ‘permanent homes of accumulated wealth’. Tony Reynard, the chairman of a freeport in Singapore, believes the 2008 financial crash triggered a demand for physical assets such as art. These ‘physical assets’, however, are invisible assets, artworks carefully concealed from the view of thieves and taxation in high-security environments such as Le FREEPORT. Like death and extinction, these artworks are not part of human experience. Hidden from view, entirely withdrawn as phenomena, they move into the philosophical category of ‘non-existent objects’ – something that does not exist in reality, like unicorns or Sherlock Holmes, and yet can still be spoken about. Yet they still function as tradable commodities in a shadow market whose opaque transactions are legally sanctioned. The notion of ‘cave art’ has been inverted in freeports: these highly-secure climate-controlled structures now function as ‘art caves’, as places of un-seeing.

Within the Freeport art cave, artworks become objects of financial speculation – a tax-free safety-deposit box for off-shore assets. The ‘art object’ is wholly withdrawn, its historical ‘truth’ concealed in the logics of finance. Its existence becomes purely nominal, whatever value its title and artist can create on the market. The ‘feeling of richness’ or ‘wealth’ that Bataille spoke of in relation to the Lascaux cave art here becomes an economic investment – a feeling at once buried behind bureaucratic layers of confidentiality and secrecy deep inside the art cave’s security complex, and at the same time exterior to it – abstracted as an asset, a ‘feeling of richness’ revealing itself as a row of numbers on a balance sheet in another country. As Heidegger asked at the beginning of his essay The Origin of the Work of Art (1950-60), how does a painting go from a thing to a work? As a thing it can hang on a wall or be transported like coal. It becomes a work by doing the work of alēthia, disclosing a truth for a historical people. But today works are concealed behind concrete walls in art caves so that the concealing Freeport itself does this unconcealing, revealing the thingliness of works as speculative commodities, reified by an elite as mere financial resource.

Heidegger would perhaps see this as the culmination of the objectification of the aesthetic experience, of the art-object as mere resource. The ‘work’ of the art work is now done by money on the art market and by the artist’s name. A different version of Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes (1887) was sold at auction for $8.9 million in 2006 and now resides in a private collection. Heidegger’s pure notion of art also abstracts it from the logics of capitalism which the artist himself worked within. In 1888, Van Gogh writes about making his pictures have some ‘market value’; in 1883, he writes about not paying his taxes, demonstrating his poverty to the ‘assessors’ in his ‘four kitchen chairs’ and lack of ‘rugs, pianos, antiques’. In this conspicuous poverty, his house-cum-studio might be said to serve as a form of tax haven.

What brings the cave art and the art cave together are their susceptibility to the elements, including human observers. Both caves – prehistoric and contemporary – require a constant ambient temperature for the art to endure. Despite the vast temporal differences, the brute materiality of the art and its precariousness remain constant. Heidegger suggests that the art work creates a historical people who preserve the work and the truth it discloses in time, until it is displaced by a new disclosure. But now we find that later historical people are preserving earlier artworks. For example, the Chauvet cave art has been reconstructed using concrete-resin walls to preserve the originals from being damaged through human body temperatures disturbing the cave’s micro-climate. The simulacrum uses 3D scans, sculptures, and photos projected onto the rocks. Even the cool subterranean temperature of the original is replicated, as these atmospheric factors – darkness, humidity – are seen as integral to the ‘feeling of emotion’ generated by the original art.  The website boasts that visitors entering the replica cavern ‘will discover the world as it appeared to men and women 36 000 years ago’. Thus, in spite of Heidegger’s critique of the aesthetic experience of artworks, it is this very quality which engenders the preserving of the cave art. How such simulacra, be it the replica cave, Werner Herzog’s documentary film, or photographs, transfigure the original work of art, is an important question. The German Critical Theorist Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ or Jean Baudrillard’s work on simulacra could provide intriguing frameworks for answering such questions.

In Heidegger’s essay, the earth is seen as the ontological horizon of all human being, which is now being threatened by the worlding of Late Capitalism, a system which benefits from concealing the truth of its destruction of its foundational earth. The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has suggested humanity’s ‘collective ideology’ is ‘mobilising mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception’ rather than facing up to the climate catastrophe at hand and the necessary economic shift needed to counter it.[1] Are these freeports, then, one such mechanism of dissimulation and self-deception, seeking to conceal rather than unconceal the increasingly uneven strife between earth and world?


[1] Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011), p. 327.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , ,