Looking to visit one of London’s more unusual spots? The Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham offers an insightful look at mental health issues in society.
Bethlem Museum of the Mind tackles the reality of mental health care in the UK head-on.
Bethlem Museum (sometimes referred to as Bedlam Hospital Museum) stores and displays a range of artwork created by those affected by mental health, including contemporary work by current Bethlem hospital patients.
From Bedlam to Bethlem Royal Hospital: A Brief History
For many centuries, the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital was the stuff of nightmares. Opened in Spitalfields in the 13th century, it became a mental institution in the 14th century, embedding itself in the city’s consciousness as a place of horrors and giving rise to the word ‘bedlam’ to refer to situations of total chaos.
Perhaps some of this reputation wasn’t deserved, but it couldn’t be further away from the Bethlem Royal Hospital of today. The hospital moved to the leafy enclaves of Monks Orchard in Beckenham in the 1930s – in it, you’ll find the little talked about Museum of the Mind, the only museum in the city dedicated to mental illness.
What’s on at Bethlem Museum of the Mind?
It’s fair to say, at this point, you may be questioning why visitors are eager to visit such a place. However, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is a truly eye-opening experience. It is home to over 1000 pieces of art, ranging from paintings to ceramics. For those with a passion for the subject, the Bethlem Museum should not be missed.
Additionally, the museum holds events that attract visitors from across the country. Unsurprisingly, the restrictions forced by the pandemic caused these events to grind to a halt. But be sure to keep an eye on their website, as the museum hopes to plan more as the country reopens in the summer.
The museum currently has an ongoing exhibition, ‘Landscapes of the Mind: The Art of Thomas Hennell’, to coincide with the book release telling the story of his fascinating life. This exhibition showcases Thomas Hennell’s (1903-1945) work, who led a varied and intriguing life, spending time as a patient at Claybury and the Maudsley Hospitals.
Unfortunately, this exhibition will be closing its doors on the 23rd July 2021, but many other fascinating pieces also focusing on the power of the outdoors are available to view in the museum, and online.
Why Visit the Bethlem Museum of the Mind?
This is no jaunty walk through the park – the Museum of the Mind paints a candid picture of the treatment of mental illness in the past, drawing from its extensive collection of objects to illustrate the realities of those treatments. It’s not all gloomy though, the museum’s art gallery features the Guttman-Maclay Collection, collated by two doctors who collected work by artists with a history of mental illness.
Some are distressing, others hopeful – all illuminate the multi-faceted dimensions of the human mind and the beauty it can produce, even in its darkest hours. These sit alongside works by current patients, whose art therapy forms an important part of their recovery.
‘Raving and Melancholy Madness’
Perhaps the most well-known artefacts in the museum are the statues created by the Danish artist Caius Gabriel Cibber, known as ‘Raving and Melancholy Madness.’
This pair of statues depict the two ‘sides’ of mental illness and stood proudly at the entrance to the hospital from 1676 until 1815. This was likely in an attempt to urge passers-by to donate to the hospital. They now line the grand staircase amongst a range of creations from other artists and patients.
The Future of the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum
As a society, how we view and care for severe mental health problems is changing dramatically. However, the hard work is not yet complete. And that is why establishments such as the Bethlem Museum of the mind are so crucial.
The artwork held in the Bethlem Hospital Museum helps those who work and live there reflect upon the care in decades gone by. Whilst challenging to ponder at times, the museum is a true reflection of mental health treatment strategies in the UK.
As mentioned, the museum can, and should, be viewed in a positive light. Not only to reflect upon the constructive changes in the healthcare system, but for what it is – a truly wonderful art gallery filled with complex, engaging masterpieces.
Book an Appointment to View the Archives
Due to the nature of the Bethlem Museum, they keep extensive archives alongside their precious artwork and artefacts. Of course, all records relating to current patients and staff members are kept strictly confidential.
Incredibly, the museum hold ‘casebooks’ (the original method of keeping medical records in the UK) dating back to the 1700s. There is a wealth of knowledge to be obtained from these detailed records.
Visitors should be warned that the archives can be challenging reading. Although captivating for those conducting in-depth research into mental health, the materials are often extremely graphic and use language that is not reflective of the words now used in modern society.
These archives are also highly beneficial to those who are researching their family history. The staff at the museum are more than willing to help and can provide details of any records they hold relating to your ancestors. Many of the archives have now been digitised and are available online for your convenience.
Practical Tips and Map for Visiting Bethlem Museum of the Mind – London’s Psychology Museum
- Admission to the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is completely free. However, it is courteous to offer a donation upon exiting to help keep the museum functioning.
- The museum is open 10 am – 5 pm Monday to Friday and the first and last Saturday of the month. Pre-booking is required Monday and Tuesday, but walk-ins are accepted every other day.
- Bethlem Museum welcomes children but stresses that an adult must supervise them at all times.
- The museum is accessible from two train stations, Eden Park (followed by a 15-minute walk) and East Croydon (followed by a 20-minute bus journey).
Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Rd, Beckenham BR3 3BX
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