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Museum of the mind

The case-books and exhibits at Bethlem give an insight into the lives of people with mental illness in the early asylums

Platoons of burly security officers effortlessly dominate the foyer of London City Airport. The airport is clean and efficient, with narrow corridors and tight circulation space. A line of businessmen queue in a highly-organised fashion for security. They have this down to a fine art: Tapping contentedly on their smart phones and sighing quietly from time-to-time in the manner of commuters utterly resigned to their fate. The security staff are polite, helpful and efficient; the waitress in the restaurant tolerates her customers’ jibes with good humour; and I exit the airport just 20 minutes after the airplane lands, processed efficiently through the system, but still spooked by the level of security on display.

I’m on my way to Bethlem Royal Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’, the first institution in the UK to specialise in the care of the mentally ill. Founded in 1247, the hospital still provides inpatient care as part of the South London and Maudsley National Health Service Foundation Trust. It has undergone many incarnations since its foundation, moving to Moorfields from its original location near Bishopsgate just outside the walls of the City of London in 1676, then to St George’s Fields in Southwark in 1815, and finally to its current location at Monks Orchard in West Wickham in 1930.

Today, the hospital not only provides mental healthcare, but also houses Bethlem Museum of the Mind, situated in a beautiful Art Deco building that it shares with the Bethlem Gallery. The museum was formally opened by artist Grayson Perry in March 2015 and it cares for an internationally-renowned collection of archives, art and historic objects, which together offer a unique resource for anyone interested in the history of mental illness and its treatment.

I take a train from London Bridge station to Eden Park and walk for 15 minutes along quiet residential streets skirting the perimeter of the hospital grounds before reaching the understated entrance gate. The museum is straight ahead. Flower beds are a glorious riot of colour and the campus has a quiet, industrious feel: Workers come and go silently, cars pull out, and there is the distant sound of builders at work.

Bethlem has many stories. For 20 years in the mid-1800s, the hospital, then in Southwark, was home to Richard Dadd (1817-86), a British painter whose extraordinary work was characterised by supernatural and orientalist themes, vivid imagination and obsessional detail. A gifted artist since childhood, Dadd was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts at the age of 20 but in 1843 became acutely disturbed, killed his father and fled to France. Following similar behaviour on his way to Paris, Dadd was returned to England, where he spent two decades in the criminal section of Bethlem before being transferred to Broadmoor Hospital, where he died in 1886. In hospital, Dadd was encouraged to paint and his work now features prominently in Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which holds his haunting Sketches to Illustrate the Passions, among other pieces. Dadd’s pain is palpable in the stark, unforgiving images.

Inside the Bethlem museum today, the entrance hall is dominated by a pair of stunning statues by 17th Century Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber, known as Raving and Melancholy Madness, preserved from the gates of the 17th Century Bethlem Hospital.

These sculptures initially greeted patients as they arrived to the asylum, then greeted visitors who paid to look at the inmates for entertainment, and now greet me as I enter the museum to try to better understand the fate of the mentally ill in the early asylums. I pass solemnly between Raving and Melancholy and proceed upstairs to the gallery.

Depression and melancholia have been described since ancient times. In The Bible, the prophet Jonah became “angry enough to die” and asked God for death: “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” The prophet Job also suffered greatly and asked, in mental agony: “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” “I have no peace, no quietness, I have no rest, but only turmoil,” he cried: “I loathe my very life, therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.”

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, in a more clinical vein, described melancholia as an identifiable medical condition with both mental and physical symptoms, and provided clinical descriptions that match remarkably well with our understanding of depression today, over two millennia later. There’s certainly plenty of depression and melancholia in evidence in the case-books and exhibits at Bethlem.

Back in central London after my visit, the city seems pointlessly busy. In the café where I type these words, a small boy plays with a smartphone, the music is loud, unpleasant and intrusive, and a melodramatic waiter waves a credit card machine above his head: “Looking for the WiFi”, he tells me, shaking his head in irritated disapproval. It all seems so trivial compared to the depth of suffering evidenced in the case-notes and artworks at Bethlem, the vastness of the unanswered questions about human melancholia, and the enduring impact of depression, now rated by the World Health Organisation as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. There is still much to do.

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