Mental Health Museum: Finding the patients’ voices

A quest to find the patients’ voices was the centre of artist Cara Macwilliam’s inspiration during the Exploring Collections Patient Artwork course at the Mental Health Museum, Wakefield.

The Problem of Christopher Taylor

“Alice!… Alice? What the bloody hell is this Jabberwock and why won’t it leave me be?” Christopher Taylor squirms, eyes aflame, claiming he’s being followed by a looming creature.  As soon as he’s given water he takes a sip and throws it in the attendant’s face, wanting Ale. The Asylum hums from the buzz of expectation yet is deathly quiet. He shuffles slowly through the corridors, his steps loudly echoing whilst looking about him, and goes and sits in the middle of the floor muttering on to himself, all a tremble. (Christopher Taylor, one of the first patients admitted, November 1818 – Hatter – Mercury poisoning & an alcoholic.) 

Come take my hand, let me bring you into this living breathing entity. Watch while I etch my voice into its lining, to be there for eternity. Trace your hands over the words, stop and linger a while. Feel the weight and vulnerablity of the stories suspended here in.

My enquiry was full of limitations and yet had deep expanse to fall into. Restricted by lack of access due to the pandemic we had to get creative. The history of Wakefield Asylum is full and utterly fascinating and yet there is so much space to stamp an imagination upon. So much unknown, unsaid and no doubt destroyed along the years. The glaring omission is the voice of the patient, their tellings deformed and deconstructed by the clinicians or ignored altogether. There is an unreality to their world. We have glimpses and are tantalised by these oddments, fact and fiction interweaving in our minds, like the clack of the loom used by the patients to help with rehabilitation. That horrific Victorian legacy that work is what makes society.

Setting out to respond to the collection, I wanted to bring a creative viewpoint to the stories and objects, I’m no scholar and constrained by my cognition. Over and over within my thoughts I was brought back to the restraints I’d encountered. But struggled to get consistency.

At first I considered creating a fictional representation, as my research had brought such rich source material. I had formulated plots and imagined characters taken from the case notes.

Ethel Wilson age 6, was to be the main character, she was the thread, sewing her mischief about the asylum. Within her lay all the magic and wisdom the inhabitants required. She was a protecting spirit who made talismen from the stones, bones and wood she found about the surroundings. She would carve each of them with care and artistry and inscribe her incantations upon them. She would then sneak her charms to those who were repairing or making the restraining shirts for them to secrete away within. Her being so small it was easy enough for her to hide from the attendants’ ever watchful eyes and she was swift. She whipped through doors before they could be locked without being noticed. She roamed the grounds as she pleased for no one could control her and yet she never tried to escape. She remained there for all the inhabitants’ protection. 

As the wonderful museum team helped me access the history and during my own discoveries, I came across detailed descriptions of daily life, for example the laundry room and its 23,000 articles washed per week.  An eye watering number. 

And through the museum photographs so graciously provided I started to feel, see and smell the life lived. What struck me was how the history of the asylum is fairly sanitised. You have to go on deep hunts to find the odd account of how things might have been. I came across a letter by a visiting doctor who described with great detail the fetid smell that pervaded the walls due to a lack of water in the toilets. And he bemoaned the realities of life there, strongly contradicting the general whitewashing by those who tightly controlled the perspective.

Reading more and being enticed by the morsels I could access, I learnt that Sir James Crichton-Browne, who was a Medical Director at the Asylum, worked closely to supply information to Charles Darwin for his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). They wrote numerous letters to each other,  describing with that stark clinical gaze, his patients’ expressions, emotions and reactions. Crichton-Browne certainly “insisted on proper records, and started annual open days and lectures with distinguished visiting speakers.”  Using poetic license I imagined that Darwin visited a few times and Crichton-Browne would have shown him cases of great interest. He certainly used Crichton-Browne’s forensic photography in his book. 

Dr James Crichton-Browne, copyright of Mental Health Museum

I’d have used this evidence for scene and plot setting to traverse the meandering wards, corridors and extensive exterior to allow meeting the asylum characters going about their daily activities via Darwin’s visiting rounds.  But also to illustrate how it feels to be a specimen rather than the humane holistic whole we are, which is something that still pervades today. The clinical gaze is of great interest to me, and these days I return that scrutiny back on the clinicians themselves, I study them for how they are responding to me, how they treat and hear me. If I didn’t challenge them in writing after some terrible consultations, I doubt they’d even realise what I was doing. Just one more way I try to leave marks in the archives of the wider world. And hopefully in some future that stance might be heard and used to understand our contemporary lived experience.

There was to be the very kind kitchen maid who was sexually assaulted by an attendant and bore a child out of wedlock. Therefore was committed to a Mental Deficiency Colony due to her ‘behaviour’ as per the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913. “In particular this [ … ] law made it possible to institutionalise women with illegitimate children who were receiving poor relief.”

Conjouring up a plot line for that same predatory attendant, who also took great relish in meting out violent blows, only to get his recompense when the child protector spirit, Ethel, trips him up and he falls down the stairs and breaks his neck.

Becoming incredibly inspired by such rich sources around me, the more I delved the more expansive it all became. My lounge wall scattered with a landscape of findings, filled with the themes that intrigued me to try and bring some clarity. Clarity didn’t come, I felt as lost and confused as it feels to be locked out of society. Unabated, the asylum seeping into my everyday. I recognise I was jumping around time frames, using case notes from both Wakefield and Menston, which was to be part of the story so I could weave together the historic remnants. Creating scope for the laws that were passed over its lifespan that would affect innumerable outcomes.

It was here I got to the part of the patient’s voice and thinking about how I might use that. I started to imagine the conversations that could be had and the scenes from the characters’ point of view. I was dealt a very striking gut feeling, I had to ask myself these hard questions… Was I being stigmatising and using the same old stereotypes? And was I stealing someone’s dignity? It was my use of Christopher Taylor’s story (see above) that made me have the strong recognition that I was.  Admitting to myself that in the very noble idea of wanting to give voice to the people who had touched me, I was actually doing the same thing that had been done to them. I was drawing on their struggles for my own narration.

How could I in all good faith know what it is like to be someone with Mercury poisoning, learning disabilities or who is having hallucinations for example? I’ve never experienced any of these things. What I did intimately know is being unheard and misunderstood. I asked myself how Philippe Pinel would update his concept of ‘Moral Treatment’ today? And for me this was my own ethical response to the experiences encountered. It was then their circumstances turned into this living breathing enclosure, giving protection to their stories. To make sure they were held secure within the womb. Perhaps once the original humane ideal was birthed the realites of life brought it all crashing down, like many a child’s experience.

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