To enter the museum, you step through a heavy wooden door to a small side-vestibule that leads you into the church. On one side is a glass case displaying objects that give a first taste of what is to come: a ceramic bed warmer, an ancient enormous thermometer for testing bath temperature, and an early piece of eye-testing equipment, a fanned series of spectacles.
I first stepped into this space a few short weeks ago. It is a place with a very particular atmosphere. You are immediately filled with a sense that there are stories to be told. And more, that there are stories waiting to be discovered.
I am a visitor. I live locally and wanted to know more about the area in which I live. I have always been fascinated by the mind and how we relate to others and the world around us.
I am writing this blog because I was drawn to the idea of sharing my experience of visiting the museum with others. I would like my blog to encourage people to visit the museum, more than once if that pleases, and to reflect on what that experience is like. What does it feel like to explore a museum? What are the things that strike you, personally, as you look around? What are the objects that move you, make you think, relate to something or someone in your life? It has always amazed me how tenderly we can feel about people from the past, especially those with whom we might feel some connection.
Inside the church your eyes are drawn first upwards to the high ceiling of the transept. Churches often inspire a reverence in their visitors. This may be because of how we have been taught to behave, or because of religious belief, or out of respect for the religious beliefs of others. The inevitable suffering of those who were patients here is everywhere whispered and sometimes, shouted. As I walk around this church and ponder the objects it holds, the reverence I feel is for the patients, their memories, their individual worlds and perspectives that we can mostly only guess at, though sometimes they are illuminated through fragments of their own expression – through art or words, the precious painted, written and oral testimonies of their experiences.
I hope that my blog helps you to look closely at the objects in this special place and to think about and talk about your own stories. Maybe you would even like to share those stories, which I know the museum staff (all volunteers) would love you to do, either by contacting them through the website or via Twitter or Facebook. Better still, please do come and look around, speak to the staff and make those connections with place and time that knit us all together. We are, after all, a collective of human beings with links to the past and messages to pass on to those who come after us in the future.
Author: Helen Bolton
You may also be interested in blogs written by Paul Tobia and Jill Achineku. Paul’s blogs focus on patients’ stories and Jill’s on the language used to describe mental illness and how its meanings have changed over time.
Artists in residence at the museum, Alldaybreakfast, are researching the archive and making artworks in response to the objects in the museum. For more information about the exciting programme of art and activities relating to the museum’s collection that they have planned and how to get involved, visit www.alldaybreakfast.info.