Bedlam has long been a byword for chaos. Now a major exhibition at the Wellcome Collection aims to shed light on the origin of the historic asylum and project forward a more enlightened view of mental health.

Through the lens of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, London, B edlam: The Asylum And Beyond explores how the experience of mental illness and notions of madness have been shaped over centuries.

Visitors encounter scenes from successive incarnations of Bethlem, as well as other alternative models of care, revealing how each was founded in a spirit of humanitarian reform, but inevitably became distracted by failure and changing ideals.

The exhibition features more than 150 objects, including patient art from Adolf Wölfli, Vaslav Nijinsky and Richard Dadd, alongside works by contemporary artists, including Eva Kot’átková, Shana Moulton and Javier Tellez.

Guest curator Mike Jay said: “ 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.

The Bedlam hospital in Moorfields

“Its story is the perfect focus 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 said: “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 – The Asylum and Beyond at the Wellcome Collection

After the Great Fire of London Bedlam moved to a site near Moorfields, as depicted in William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1763).

This section traces how madness was first defined by the law, and reveals how the asylum was open to public visitors

Bethlem moved in the 1800s to the building in St George’s Fields, Southwark, that now houses the Imperial War Museum.

In 1930 Bethlem moved again to a new site, a villa complex outside the city, and began to incorporate talking and community-based therapies, completing its three stage journey – madhouse, asylum, mental hospital.

Until Jan 15, Wellcome Collection NW1, free

Case studies

James Tilly Matthews

James Tilly Matthews' plans for a new asylum

The London teabroker (1770-1815) is considered the first documented case of paranoid schizophrenia but it’s for his vision rather than his illness for which he has a place in Bedlam history.

Matthews – who believed a gang of spies were tormenting him by means of rays – produced ideas for a building centred on patients’ needs in the planned new Bedlam.

He took part in a public competition to design plans for the new hospital and governors thought so well of the 46 pages of meticulous designs they paid him £50 and some of his ideas were included.

James Norris

James Norris, chained to the wall for a decade

The sad case of Norris brought the ill-treatment of Bedlam inmates to the fore.

Evidence was given to a Parliamentary inquiry in 1814 about the American seaman who was “riveted alive in iron, and for many years confined, in that state, by chains 12 inches long to an upright massive bar in a cell in Bethlem”.

MPs who visited the man found him quiet and rational and the publicity resulted in greater public interest in more humane treatments.

Norris was released from his restraints but he was so weak that he died a few weeks later.

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