World Mental Health Day Special: Bedlam Exhibition Review

Today is World Mental Health Day so it seemed an appropriate day to review Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in central Londo. I visited this exhibition during an extended lunch-break from university and whilst usually I prefer to spend my spare time avoiding deadlines and catching up with friends, for personal reasons this exhibition was of interest. Because I’m one of them. One of the 10%. Still no clue?

10% of English people will suffer from depression in their lifetime.

Every year one in four of us will suffer some sort of mental health problem.

Whilst the Bedlam exhibition showed the improvement in care of those once considered hysteric, melancholic, insane and disturbed and the change from what was the neat Georgian facade of eponymous Bedlam hospital then in London’s Moorfields, hiding an interior of broken individuals treated like zoo animals, shockingly visited on the tourist circuit of contemporary London. But the exhibition ended with a challenging question – what has the asylum been replaced with and are they still needed. Whilst the asylum is traditionally seen by some as an outdated and inhumane practice replaced by therapy and care in the community they are also seen by many suffering from mental health issues as “a safe space to be ‘mad.’” The world asylum after all means place of refuge.the_rakes_progress_8

The asylum had evolved from that 18th century hell-hole to institutions such as the Netherne Hospital in Surrey which was a pioneering centre of art therapy where around 100,000 art works were created in under thirty years. Other similar institutions had music rooms, entertainment programmes and provided work placements on farms and in craft workshops. A far cry from the idea of endless sombre padded cells (even though yes these were commonly used as a means of self-protection before the advent of many forms of medication). In 1961, Health Minister Enoch Powell announced the closure of these apparently unwieldy institutions and no more funding allocated towards updating their facilities – an announcement that came as a complete surprise to the medical profession with only a handful of experimental care in the community schemes. It was heart-breaking hearing the account of former patients returning to the familiar grounds of Netherne during it’s conversion into luxury apartments and being moved on.adamson_anon_hair_full

Unfortunately the government’s current climate of austerity politics has also not been kind to mental health services. Last year the government cut this sectors NHS budget by nearly 10% and they receive only 13% of NHS funding despite accounting for a fifth of the illnesses suffered by those in the UK. At one point in 2014 there were even no mental health beds available in the hospital units that replaced those in the asylums. Continue reading

Exhibition Reviews: Sicily – Culture and Conquest

Usually the British Museum puts on exhibitions with punchy titles –  ‘Vikings,’ ‘Celts’,  ‘Aztecs’ etc. so when I first heard about this exhibition I was happily surprised. Most people probably only know of Sicily from the rhyme ‘Big boot Italy kicked little Sicily right into the middle of the Mediterranean sea.’ Sicily however has been fairly high on my travel bucket-list ever since I saw pictures of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo where the skeletons of the dead are placed in niches and the atmospheric conditions mean their clothing has survived, resulting in the pictures of the site being incredibly eerie.
12th century tombstone from Palermo

So why pay to see an exhibition on a “minor” European island off Italy when it’s not a BM blockbuster exhibition? If you’re interested in the Greeks, Romans, Byzantium or the Islamic world – this exhibition has a little bit of everything. The island’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean meant it was effectively a melting pot of cultures and religions over time. The tombstone above encapsulates the “multiculturalism” or syncretism of cultures that occurred with Greek, Latin, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic all crammed in on the one headstone.
Terracotta antefix in the form of a Gorgon from Gela, Sicily

Continue reading

Exhibition Reviews: Russia and the Arts

Growing up, the National Portrait Gallery was my favourite place to visit in London, in fact I visited so many times I can list who’s portrayed in some of the galleries (definitely normal behaviour)!. The gallery is a literal walk through British history from Medieval monarchs to modern rock-stars and in my view encapsulates the people and often characters that make history so interesting.

Despite the gallery being so well known, the concept of a portrait gallery itself is relatively unusual. The portraits from “Russia and the Arts” are loaned from Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, founded based on the collections of 19th century merchant Pavel Tretyakov who began to collect portraits of contemporary bigwigs; Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky – they’re all here. This exhibition provides a glimpse of what the 19th century gallery of a non-existant Russian National Portrait Gallery would be like.
Ilya Repin’s portrait of the composer Modest Mussorgsky (1881)

Continue reading

Exhibition Reviews: Ancient Egypt Special

Death on the Nile at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Fitzwilliam is  Cambridge’s main museum – the British Museum, National Gallery and V&A all squished together; Pre-Raphaelite Art, suits of armour and a massive ceramic owl – it’s all here!

Being near where I live I thought “Egyptians, Agatha Christie reference, sounds good” so promptly went along. Aged 9 I had a great pyramids of Giza sized small obsession with them, although studying them at A Level to death and the afterlife means I’m perhaps unjustly not so much of an Egyptophile anymore.

The exhibition itself focuses on the historical changes in burial practice – from simple inhumations in the sand to Greco-Roman portrait masks nearly 3,000 years later. Ancient Egyptian burial practice isn’t just mummies in bandages. Visually many of the coffins are stunning; rich in colour, covered in unusual gods with green skin or animal heads. You also began to see the business side of the sarcophagus industry; many being bought-to-order with names merely squished in a gap, coffins reused from old fragments and some of the paint-jobs remarkably scruffy. The coffins weren’t all stereotypical intricate multi-sarcophagus gold leaf jobs.

Greco-Roman style mummy case holding flowers and papyrus


Continue reading

Exhibition Reviews: Sargent Portraits of Artists and Friends at NPG / Conflict, Time, Photography at Tate Modern

So I recently became a member of the Museums Association which for a small subscription allows you into most of the major London exhibitions for FREE! So instead of spending £25 on student tickets, draining my student budget and forcing me to live off yellow labelled Sainsbury’s goods for a fortnight, I strolled in with my £3.35 a month MA card. In short if you regularly go to exhibitions in London check out Museums Association.

Anyway, to the actual exhibitions. John Singer Sargent was the Edwardian portrait painter mainly known for portraits of society beauties in voluminous dresses, often with even more voluminous hair. The portraits are organised in the exhibition as a timeline of his work and are mainly of the friends he makes on his travels through Paris, America, London and elsewhere. The focus on his friends meant that the portraits displayed are also the ones that Sargent himself chose to do; of writers and artists such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Rodin.

John Singer Sargent ‘Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth’, 1889
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, Sargent

Continue reading