Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Bristol Lunatic Asylum


This week, I took a trip to the former Bristol Lunatic Asylum, which is on the edge of the University of the West of England campus on Blackberry Hill. Now called the Glenside Museum, this extraordinary and valuable museum is a treasure trove of Victorian, Edwardian and mid-century paraphernalia, photographs and machinery that has been carefully curated into a genuinely unique museum.

Housed in a deconsecrated chapel (which was derelict and home to pigeons and squirrels when the museum took it over in 1994), the Grade-II listed building is now beautifully restored, complete with working church organ (which someone was playing when we visited – although there was something confusing about listening to Get Me To The Church On Time while looking at a human skull that had been drilled during a lobotomy), stained glass windows and altar.

The museum was bigger than we had imagined, and contained much more than we anticipated. Not everything was pleasant to see (slices of human brain on a microscope plate, a pickled human brain with a cyst, Electric Shock Therapy machinery, lobotomy tools etc), but that doesn’t make it unimportant. As someone who lives with depression and anxiety, and who has spent time in the contemporary mental health system as an outpatient, it was even more fascinating for me to see how people in my situation fared 150 years previously.

But there is nothing at Glenside Museum that is intended to exploit the former patients or their memories. Everything is treated with respect, care and consideration. We spoke with Dr Ihsan Mian during our visit – a retired psychiatrist who worked at the hospital until it closed in 1994, and who is now chair of the Friends of the Glenside Hospital Museum – and he explained that the purpose of the museum is to educate people about mental illness, and also to challenge the stigma and ignorance that still surrounds the subject. Talking with him it is clear that he is extremely passionate about the museum and it’s future, and has an enclyopedic knowledge of the hospital’s history.

The museum is only open twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10am-12.30pm. Entry is free but donations are welcome. Click here to visit the website, which has a great deal of information about the museum. Click here to read a good feature from 2010 about the history of the hospital and museum in the Bristol Evening Post.

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