“The mental health museum is about creating conversations,” said curator Jane Stockdale who gave us an exclusive tour.
“We co-create new narratives with our visitors to stimulate debate and combat mental health stigma”.
Prior to the establishment of asylums, people were looked after in private establishments or in the home. During the 1800s the building of many asylums was encouraged to improve care. Some of the reasons for admission were extraordinary however. Patients included people with mental health problems, but also women who had had an ‘illegitimate child’. The register of admissions from November 1818 to December 1838 included people admitted for too much study, including reading plays and the study of astrology. People were admitted who did not fit with societal norms of the time.
“The early asylums did practice treatments which we find very brutal and shocking today. However, many of the early ideas in these establishments around wellbeing for example and the value of green space are still important today” said Jane.
One of those asylums in Wakefield was The West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, later renamed the Stanley Royd Hospital.
When Stanley Royd Hospital closed in 1995, the museum moved to its current location at Fieldhead Hospital.
Jane said: “The museum represents an extraordinary collection, these objects are uniquely important in telling a story which has been neglected in public history. In many towns and cities these stories have been lost. However the museum was in much need of a facelift by the time it moved to Fieldhead Hospital. It was used mainly by academics and clinicians, but we wanted to tell this story to a broader public.”
Much like with the mental health care system, it needed to be about the service-user voice first.
“We have a lot of incredible artefacts from the past including the padded cell from the 1930s, but other than some artwork we don’t have a lot of stories from the patients themselves, we just learn about them through clinician’s case notes. We wanted to change all of that, updating the museum so it gave a platform for service-users to share their stories in their own way.”
As you journey through the compact museum you go on a history of mental health treatment with an Electroconvulsive Therapy machine on show alongside medication and other objects including a walk-in padded cell detailing the historic treatment of mental health. On the tour Jane spoke about the care taken to present these stories: “We are conscious that these are very challenging objects and topics to discuss, so it is important we do this sensitively and build these narratives together with others, as well as signposting support.
One of the topics which provides discussion in the museum is the chained weighted boots patients would wear when walking around the grounds.
Jane said: “Some people think the boots were revolutionary in that they allowed patients to walk around the grounds of the hospital whereas the fact that they’re weighted and locked is obviously controversial. We like to open up these conversations – what do treatments mean in terms of freedom or control and restraint? Wherever we can we include the different perspectives that people bring to the museum, we value different opinions – they open up discussion and we need to keep these conversations going.”
The museum’s collection helps to explore changes in treatments and services, working for wellbeing, personal recovery journeys and our shared lived experiences. Perhaps less expected items are objects from the artisan workshops on site where patients were encouraged to develop their skills in trades that may have been part of their lives outside hospital, including printing, cloth-making, woodworking and brewing.
One of the artistic items of expression is a vinyl straight jacket with labels on it. Such parallels of treatment are shown between the use of medication today and padded cells of the not too distant past.
“It’s really important that this space is in the heart of the hospital grounds, so that people on site can experience it. “We want the museum to evolve and be part of that change in how patients are treated using a person-centred approach,” added Jane.
The museum is now open by appointment to the public. Showing until December 2022 ‘Recollections May Vary’ is the museum’s new exhibition which features twelve responses to the museum collection by artists as part of a collaboration between the Mental Health Museum and Outside In. You can pre-book your visit by contacting the museum on 01924 316360 or emailing [email protected]