Review: House of Bread – Inside Bethlem Hospital, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Published 11 December 2018

A winner of our student writing competition, Saskia Jiggens discovers tranquillity and hope in this moving exhibition exploring the daily life of a psychiatric hospital.

With a history spanning hundreds of years, Bethlem Royal Hospital is the subject of this solo show by photographer Mark Neville, commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the NHS. Bethlem Museum of the Mind’s permanent collection, featuring a straitjacket, restraints, padded cell walls and brutal archive documents, forms a striking dichotomy with this contemporary exhibition.

With around one in four people in the UK experiencing mental health problems each year, the exhibition couldn’t be more poignant. Neville’s photos are enlightening, offering glimpses into this functioning hospital – reportedly the oldest psychiatric facility in the world – through the eyes of staff and patients in an unpretentious, intimate space. There is tranquillity, allowing time for personal reflection.

It is uplifting to contemplate the evolution of an institution that historically used barbaric mental health practices. Neville’s photo Senior Dramatherapist and Tess is empathetic and approachable. She is anonymous but her canine companion, Tess, beams candidly, inviting interaction. This touching demonstration of the conceptual progress made in psychiatry exemplifies the benefit of the arts in welfare and recovery.

Current patients are respectfully excluded from the display, but we observe daily Bethlem life at its most authentic, from images of dedicated staff to a ward’s 'Tree of Recovery'. Handwritten notes are attached to its leaves, exposing patients’ emotional aspirations, explicitly raw and vulnerable. The honesty speaks directly to us and provides the Bethlem community with a voice.

'It’s not forever… it’s my home for the meantime' is the line chosen to promote the exhibition. Unlike their historic counterparts, these patients seem to feel hopeful and empowered.

The final work is the most powerful: a painted wall-hanging depicting the words: 'You are never helpless, unloved or alone. You are a unique human being with a distinct role to play in the universe.' The drapery has a border of colourful shapes; individually, these are fragmented and haphazard, but they harmonise collectively. We are all different, but part of the same whole.

House of Bread: Inside Bethlem Hospital is free to all and runs until 5 January 2019, Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham

Saskia Jiggens is a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art and curates the Instagram account @thecourtauldchronicles

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