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Photo by © Bethlem Museum of the Mind

collar’. Deceptively jolly-looking discovery aids – such as the ‘Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children’ complete with its parlour game-style box – all relay history’s determination to nail the four humours of the body. There’s even a machine with Bakelite knobs and switches that could be straight out of a scene from Disney’s most disturbing movie ever, Return to Oz, sinisterly-labelled the ‘Improved Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases’. Indeed, the notion of any physical intervention using this array of archaic instruments is likely to test even the most phlegmatic and sanguine among us. There is art everywhere too, visual depiction seemingly a most effective route to therapy. In Louis Wain’s work, the schizophrenia that dogged the famous illustrator of anthropomorphised cats is thrillingly evident, even to a lay observer; the vivid, feline portraits sporting devious technicolour grins would surely send his most ardent Victorian of greetings-card correspondents fluttering for the smelling salts. There is William Kurelek’s extraordinary 1955 detail of his condition – a striking cross-section of the contents of his mind in gouache – art by Anna Kavan the novelist and also by celebrated Bedlam inmate Richard Dadd, tormented creator of The Fairy Feller’s MasterStroke. In an adjacent space, a modern dining room tableau featuring chairs fashioned from barbed wire demonstrates the breadth of affliction that is covered both here at the museum and in the daily reality of the institution that surrounds it. As well as art, there are letters from patients and relatives, some even in gratitude for their treatment. There are photos, too, of pantos and of fancy dress 26

balls, allegorical perhaps to the indiscriminate nature of psychiatric disorder: it is impossible to discern the staff from the sick in their absurd costumes. Alongside such perplexion and sadness, there is also an essence of kindness. Incredibly, this small archive, a repository of voices within a larger human repository, has been shortlisted for the Museum of the Year 2016 and is up against some intimidating contenders including the behemoth V&A (gulp) and Bristol’s handsome Arnolfini, with the winner announced in July. It deserves the accolade. Meanwhile beyond the walls, the museum fronts 240 acres of grand trees, rescued orchards, rare bluebell colonies and flamboyant shrubs criss-crossed by ‘cow paths’ and trails. Set against the backdrop of a grim past, the impression of Bethlem now is one of benevolence and calm, and its powerful, intelligent little museum reflects changing attitudes towards mental health and the continuing efforts to treat those who suffer. When I head out through the gates and glance back at the proud, iconic NHS logo, I can’t help but think that for those who would have us go backwards – and they know who they are – there is an archaic and cruel steel contraption on display inside, with their name on it Museum of the Mind Monks Orchard Rd Beckenham BR3 3BX Open to the public Wednesday-Friday 10am-5pm and every first & last Saturday of the month

The Transmitter Issue 40  

A South London Magazine

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