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Representing Mental Health in Cultural Institutions

written by Magdalena Cupo


The vision for this project came out of a desire to foster meaningful interactions between cultural institutions and discourse surrounding mental health. In the case of the museum that we worked with the connection was innate as Bethlem Museum of the Mind is housed in the building that was the oldest hospital dedicated to mental illness. Their collection and archives catalysed our project providing a focal point on which to develop our ideas. The series of thirty-five lithographs that we were kindly given access to become a touchstone that allowed us to seek out ways of curation that would develop conversations and thought around issues and topics relating to mental health. But why is it important to present the histories surrounding mental health? There are three primary reasons that we identify why it is crucial that we investigate and present the histories of mental health in the present. First, the issue of ‘otherness’. To be othered is to take the fact that someone is not the same as you and to use that as a weapon against them, and this usually has sociocultural implications. As such much of the history of mental health is represented by the societal and cultural stigmas surrounding mental illness as a form of difference. So, what part do our cultural institutions play in this? Well, as places that enshrine our collective beliefs about the past, cultural institutions hold the power to confront the issue of otherness in history. Confront being the important word here as we need to not only acknowledge the ways in which otherness is encapsulated by the artifacts in our collections but also seek to challenge it through the curation choices made in its presentation. This is something we are seeking to accomplish in our presentation of the lithograph series as well. We not only acknowledge that these images initially represented an othering of people with experience of mental illness, but also employ our curation to seek to rectify this, transforming these images from a point of difference to a place of contact between those of the past and present. We do this through a careful and person first approach in every aspect of our decision making. This is why we rewrote the descriptions for every one of the portraits in our collection. We did not want to rely on the othering and alienating original descriptions from the 19th century that reduced individuals to a perceived ‘disease’. We sought to reframe the images in a way that brings them close to the individuals viewing them rather than creating distance through a foregrounding of difference. Secondly, it is crucial that we give representation to individuals of the past. Stigma has confined those with mental illness to the shadows and while society has sought to hide those who experience life differently it is time to tell their stories and bring their experiences into the public consciousness. This is where cultural institutions come in. Those in the GLAM community (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) hold many artifacts that illuminate the lives of those who lived with mental ill health and as such have the power to provide these individuals of the past with recognition in the present. This is our aim in the gallery space we have created to facilitate recognition and an honoring of past individuals and their experiences. Finally, exhibits similar to ours hold the potential to spark discussions around mental health in the present and foster empathy in contemporary society. This is accomplished through exhibits providing the opportunity for individuals to practice care for people of the past. This action of practicing care is a way to bring about a kinder more empathetic society. The potential for creating new thinking patterns can be produced through preparing oneself to show care and empathy in the space of our cultural institutions. Through practicing care for individuals who lived before us, showing concern for them, and empathising with their lived experiences we are creating an emotional availability that can be employed to care for those we meet in life who experience mental ill health. As such cultural institutions hold the possibility to aid in the reshaping of society into a more empathetic and caring culture.

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