Saturday, 29 August 2015

Bethlem Museum Keep the Home Fires Burning Exhibition

This exhibition is a Heritage Lottery funded joint venture between Bethlem Museum Bromley Archives and Local Studies and the soon to close Bromley Museum as part of the Caring for the Casualties of the First World War in Bromley series of events. It runs from 29 August-31 October 2015 see Bethlem Museum of the Mind.
Earlier this year Bromley opened a First World War Allotment open day with recipe leaflet. This co curated exhibition by Bethlem Museum registrar Diana Chaccour and Camilla Biggs MSc War and Psyhiatry Kings College London was introduced to visitors in a guided tour of the exhibition on its opening day.
The title chosen is that of the Ivor Novello song and with my familiarity with the Novello family plot in Biggin Hill the exhibition felt rooted in Bromley. This theme is continued in various sections of the displays with items from local Archive and Museum collections woven into the story of war with in a context of mental illness and local efforts to absorb and accommodated belgian refugees. The patient case notes of a mental health institution which was not sequestered for military use (unlike the Maudsley Hospital who treated "shell shock") nevertheless the impact of war on the mental health of those on the Home Front.
The exhibition is organised into 5 sections illustrating "Joining the Army" "Women at the Home Front" "Seeking Shelter" "Patients" and "Recovery". The experience of local people in Bromley and hospital experiences are woven into a narrative which is illustrative of resilience and recovery and therefore especially resonant of people at risk of or affected by mental disorders. It is gratifying to hear of the number of Bromley Schools who will experience the exhibition in a borough whose councillors have from 1 October 2015 removed access to the Museum Service.
I felt very much at home with one section of the exhibition. One of my maternal relatives was Church of England chaplain at Springfield Hospital and his contemporary and colleague at Bethlem Reverend Edward Geoffrey O'Donohue features prominently in two sections of the Exhibition. The Women at the Home Front images of women undertaking a variety of working roles in the absence of males are part of the extensive glass lantern slide collection held at Bethlem Archives (reference LSC) which the chaplain used to illustrate his talks to patients and staff.
The Lantern Slide collection is fascinating since O'Donohue's images are clearly the work of a professional photographer with a commission as they are high quality images and the series focus on Women at work from Land Girls to London Transport lift operators;subjects are far beyond the hospital. This begs the question did the hospital commission the images of non hospital subjects? Bomb damage to the hospital and a crater in the front lawn are also illustrated as well as Firewatchers on the roof with the iconic Bethlem dome in the background.
Victoria Northwood Bethlem Museum director is going to speak of "The Chaplain's Entertainments" on 26 September 2015 see Bethlem Museum of the Mind events
In the future absence of a Museum Service in Bromley it is reassuring that a collaboration can produce a high quality exhibition at one of the few heritage venues in Bromley using material from the Museum collection and two local Archives in the borough which is accessible to schools two days per week in the absence of the general public.