Notions of asylum and beyond

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By | From the Collections

We’ve invited Mike Jay, curator of the exhibition ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’, to take over the Library Blog as guest editor for a series of blog posts inspired by the notion of ‘asylum’ and our own digitised mental health archives.

Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition, ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’, offers the perfect opportunity to highlight the Library’s digital mental healthcare collections. The exhibition draws on original material from several of these archives, including Ticehurst House and the York Retreat, to bring to life the largely forgotten world of the asylum, consider its legacy and ask whether its original vision can be recovered or reclaimed today.

Retreat York

South front of the Retreat, showing the original Gentlemen’’s Lodge building, painted by a patient,1822? Library reference: RET/2/1/7/4.

The exhibition presents the perspectives of doctors and asylum governors alongside those of patients, artists, campaigners and reformers. The digital archives are equally wide-ranging, including patients’ artworks and letters alongside photographs and lantern slides, journals, architectural plans and manuscript records such as casebooks, admission registers and official correspondence.


Case records 1890-1898 from Ticehurst House Hospital Papers. Wellcome Library reference: MS 6393.

The term ‘asylum’ still retains its original meaning, a place of sanctuary and care, alongside the darker associations of abuse and neglect that became attached to it during its history. The wealth of material now available in digital form encompasses both the humanitarian vision of the asylums and their often bleak reality. This series of blog posts aims to dig deeper into some of the questions raised by the exhibition, and to give a flavour of the range of stories that the asylum archives can be used to illuminate.

Rakes Progress Bedlam scene engraving by W Hogartht

A scene at Bethlem hospital (Bedlam), from the Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth. Engraving by W. Hogarth, 1763, after an earlier engraving by himself, 1735. Wellcome Library reference 20040i.

The language used in asylum records is full of outmoded diagnostic terms and descriptions that are often offensive to modern ears. Our series opens with a couple of posts that interrogate the use of language in these historical records and consider the ways we might interpret it today. Later posts will examine the creative practices that were encouraged in some asylums and mental hospitals, such as patient art and the use of dance therapy. Others will profile medical figures, such as William Walters Sargant, whose papers can now be explored in digital form, and investigate the sources and impact of their ideas. And as in the exhibition, we’ll be balancing doctors’ stories with patients’ perspectives, looking at the challenges to the concept of recovery articulated in the records of the psychiatric survivor movement.


Mike Jay is an author and cultural historian. He is the guest curator of Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’. His accompanying book, ‘This Way Madness Lies’, is published by Thames & Hudson.

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