Saturday, 21 February 2015

Bethlem Museum of the Mind and Gallery

19 February saw the opening of the former admin building at Bethlem Hospital in Beckenham as home to both the Museum of the Mind and Bethlem Gallery. I value the archive of the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world being within a simple public transport ride from my home. A previous life working at the hospital and my long link to the archive have kept me in touch with the planning of the new museum. I first visited the archive here in 1973 and was surprised at how little space was available to display or research. In those days the museum was only open by prior written appointment and it was usually necessary to give 7 days notice of intention to visit. I recall the old admin building entrance being carpeted so the modern entrance came as a surprise!
The entrance to the upper floor museum and gallery housing temporary or visiting exhibitions is the art deco stairway or by the new lift. The building is wheelchair accessible and is also friendly to other disabilities including deaf or hard of hearing.
The marbled entrance presents the Museums two largest sculptures appropriately welcoming visitors as centuries before they had been on top of the entrance gates to the old Bethlem Hospital in London. "Raving" and" Melancholy" madness the former chained were the work of Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber and from 1676 to 1815 were London landmarks. They are displayed now in ligt and blend well in my opinion with the art deco stairs to the upper floor. Their previous home is well captured in the BBC image of former museum
At the head of the stairs a timeline history of Bethlem Hospital and it's four sites guides the visitor through to the Museum entrance.
Here a floor to ceiling display with sound has an 18 minute film which describes the history of visitors to the hospital inmates of the 18th century mingled with contemporary staff patients relatives and visitors. I was able to contribute to this display in evoking Ned Ward's "confinement" in the early years of the eighteenth century and give him voice. The museum has made excellent use of space and I particularly like the glass wall to the area devoted to the use of physical restraint which contrasts the "padded cell" with the large estate outside which is home to the hospital buildings.

 For details of the Museum and Gallery see Visit london Guide.
The Gallery has space on both floors; the lower floor is home to contemporary art installations and has an artist at work. There is also a room to accommodate speakers and presentations. The gallery is a multi media experience and includes performance art by Liz Atkin and reflects the use of art therapy in the history of the hospital. The upper floor houses temporary exhibitions and the inaugural collection on display features the late Bryan Charnley entitled the Art of Scizophrenia. I have now viewed this exhibition twice and each time found that I gained insight into the paintings. Again the exhibits include not only the artist's work but his link to the collection;an invoice for the hospital purchase of several works alongside palette. This exhibition runs from 16 February-22 May 2015 and further planned exhibits will attract visitors to the Gallery.
I have one minor criticism of the new Museum which is that although highly attended the local road signage to a heritage site which has achieved international recognition in it's opening week on social media and in print is non-existent at present. The site signage has also not been updated. Fortunately the Museum and Gallery is facing the vehicle and pedestrian entrance in Monks Orchard Road but as a heritage site I do hope that the London Boroughs of bromley and Croydon will install brown road signage to guide visitors.
I mentioned that Ned Ward now has a voice in welcoming visitors here in floor to ceilinh multi media is his confinement.