Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond

Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond  at the Wellcome Collection

Rebecca Wallersteiner explores ‘Bedlam’ and the rise and fall of the asylum, a new exhibition opening at the Wellcome Collection on 15th September

From 15th September, the Wellcome Collection, in London, will open its doors to Bedlam: the asylum and beyond an exhibition tracing the rise and fall of the asylum and how it has reflected the changing attitudes of doctors and the society around it through the lens of the  Bethlem Royal Hospital, London – one of the oldest and most famous psychiatric hospitals in history. The exhibition explores diverse and often contradictory ideas surrounding mental illness, how medicine, art and society have sought to define and treat it, and questions what the future might hold.

Visitors will encounter scenes from successive incarnations of Bethlem, as well as other models of care from elsewhere in the UK and Europe, revealing how each was founded in an optimistic spirit of humanitarian reform, but abandoned as therapies failed and ideas changed.

Emphasising the lived experiences of individuals, the exhibition will feature over 150 objects and archival materials, including patient art from Adolf Wölfli, Vaslav Nijinsky and Richard Dadd, alongside works by contemporary artists, including Eva Kot’átková, Shana Moulton, Javier Tellez and the ‘Madlove: A Designer Asylum’ project. A new digital commission for the exhibition by Erica Scourti, Empathy Deck, will use an online mood monitor to generate unique tarot cards, each one offering a healing approach, remedy or thought.

Guest curator, author and historian, Mike Jay says: “Preserved in popular imagination as ‘Bedlam’, the Bethlem Royal Hospital is perhaps the oldest institution of its kind in the world, and has witnessed the entire history of mental illness and psychiatry. Its story is the perfect focus for Wellcome Collection to explore how medicine, art and culture define mental illness, and the big questions it raises about the individual and society.”

Wellcome Collection co-curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz adds: “The perspectives of patients and those with lived experiences of mental distress, as well as those who are blurring the boundaries between art and therapeutic practice, are at the core of this exhibition. At a time when the marketplace of treatment and support options is so broad, but often inaccessible, the exhibition both interrogates and reclaims the idea of the asylum as a place of sanctuary and care.”

‘Bedlam’ will open with a large-scale installation, Asylum, by artist Eva Kot’átková. This 2014 work was inspired by conversations with psychiatric patients and features live performers, evoking the tensions between protection and restraint that thread throughout the exhibition. Visitors will also be introduced to the alternative model of care offered by the town of Geel, Belgium, the home of patron saint of mental affliction St Dymphna, where sufferers in the middle ages were taken in by local families and became ‘boarders’, part of the community, a tradition that continues to this day.

The first scene from Bedlam shows Bethlem hospital’s eighteenth-century site in Moorfields, as depicted in William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (1763). This section will trace how madness was first defined by the law, and reveals how the asylum was open to public visitors, inspiring numerous plays, ballads, poems and artworks. It also features architectural plans for a new Bethlem building by one of the inmates, James Tilly Matthews: the first psychiatric hospital designs by a patient.

Bethlem moved in the 1800s to the building in St George’s Fields, Southwark that now houses the Imperial War Museum. Patient experiences from this era were recorded in poetry, such as Epitaph, of My Poor Jack, Squirrel II, by James Hadfield, and in a quarterly magazine, Under the Dome. The debates around physical restraint from this time are illuminated by Jane Fradgley’s haunting photographs of the quilted garments worn by patients, and definitions of normality are subverted in Javier Tellez’s film installation Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008), based on the 1920 silent movie, the Cabinet of Dr Caligari (which is currently featured in another Wellcome Collection exhibition: ‘States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness’). Photographs by Henry Hering show Bethlem inmates before and after their time in the asylum, as well as the artist Richard Dadd working in his cell while confined as an ‘incurable lunatic’. Dadd turns the patient’s gaze on the doctors with his oil portrait of Bethlem’s governor Alexander Morison (1852).

By the twentieth century, the modern mental hospital had replaced the asylum and redefined mental illness. In 1930 Bethlem moved again to a new site, a villa complex outside the city, and began to incorporate talking and community-based therapies. At this time, patient art was considered both as therapy and a tool for analysis, with several examples shown in this section including Mental Asylum Band-Copse (1910) by Adolf Wölfli, one of the earliest outsider artists.Abandoned Goods, an essay film by Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson tells the story of over 5500 pieces of patient artwork, now collectively known as the Adamson Collection.

Psychiatry changed rapidly in the twentieth century. The advent of medication as well as other treatment options, and anti-institutional movements such as the democratic psychiatry movement led by Italian Franco Basaglia, coupled with economic pressures, led to residential hospitals being decommissioned.  The incongruities of this process are captured in humorous illustrations by Ugo Guarino (1979) alongside a brochure for luxury flats in the former Friern Barnet asylum of north London.

The last section of the exhibition will explore the ever-expanding marketplace of treatments and therapies in the post-asylum world, from pharmaceuticals to traditional healing and spirituality, to online support, and artistic therapies. Restless Leg Saga (2012), a film installation by Shana Moulton, depicts a character searching through television and magazine adverts to find relief from her condition, and is shown alongside several examples of pamphlets promoting cross-cultural and holistic treatment-guides from the Wellcome Library’s collection. There will be a return to Bethlem and Geel in their current incarnations, with a selection of drawings by David Beales, an artist represented by the Bethlem Gallery, that show moments from his time inside psychiatric hospitals, and a collection of photographs by Hugo Minnen that depict boarders going about their daily lives in Geel.

The final work in the exhibition will be a special commission of The Vacuum Cleaner and Hannah Hull’s Madlove: A Designer Asylum, a collaborative project with designers Benjamin Koslowski and James Christian, illustrator Rosie Cunningham, and over 300 people with lived experience of mental distress who are revisiting and reimagining the asylum as ‘a safe place to go mad’.

Bethlem Royal Hospital remains a functioning hospital based in Beckenham and is now part of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. On the 270 acre site, sits the Bethlem Gallery and Museum, free and open to all.


Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ will run at Wellcome Collection from 15 September 2016 to 15 January 2017. A parallel exhibition curated by Sam Curtis, ‘Reclaiming Asylum’, will be held at the Bethlem Gallery, from 21 September– 11 November 2016.

Wellcome Collection; 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE; tel. 0207 611 2222

Gallery opening hours Mon- Gallery closed; Tues & Wed 10am – 6pm; Thurs 10am -10pm; Fri & Sat – 10am-6pm


This Way Madness Lies: The asylum and beyond, a book by Mike Jay produced to accompany the exhibition, will be published by Thames & Hudson.


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