Open on the first and last Saturday of the month, at the start of this month I headed over to Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Shortlisted for the 2016 Museum of the Year award, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind tackles a difficult history in a reflective, ethically minded, and accessible exhibitions.
The first thing that is wholly needed in a museum that reflects a difficult history is friendly staff and volunteers. Although the building, situated in the midst of a seemingly intimidating hospital complex, the staff when arriving build a welcoming and accessible atmosphere for it’s visitors. Considering that the museum is likely to have visitors with an personally emotional connection to the heritage on display, as well as the contemporary interpretations, the need for friendly and welcoming staff is not to be underestimated.
I willing tried to not read too much about the Bethlem Museum of the Mind before I visited, wanting to let the building speak for itself. So, perhaps naively, I was surprised by the extent of Grayson Perry’s involvement. The housing of the museum in the Bethlem Royal Hospital is fitting, as the hospital – founded in 1247 – was the first UK institution focussed on caring for the mentally ill.
The space is split into three major spaces, two temporary and one permanent exhibition. The first of which, The Art of Recovery, showcases works created to reflect their experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Statues Melancholy and Raving Madness by Caius Gabriel Cibber then lead you up the stairs to the permanent exhibition.
While I shouldn’t be surprised by a museum that opened in 2015, the permanent gallery is modern and bright. Bethlem Museum of the Mind has perfected the fine tuned balance of having digital interactives without being flashy. Although the museum is clearly new in it’s design, I don’t feel that it will age anytime soon.
Most importantly, the permanent exhibition has no shortage of spaces for reflection. As the museum represents the huge topic of mental health in a physically small site, this decision is clearly intentional. One specific break space that is bright and airy with floor to ceiling windows (not photographed but visible in the video) is situated next to an instillation of solitary confinement padded walls. The juxtaposition of these two polar opposites is striking.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind is engaging, while leaving space for much needed contemplation. Awareness and understanding of mental health is slowly growing, perhaps not fast enough but the museum is leading the way – as well as being an fascinating visit.
p.s, charmingly and delightedly, the man in the first photograph asked if he could pose in my photograph of the building. How could I possibly say no?