Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum

 

Blog written by PhD student Morag Allan Campbell

 

Morag and exhibition

Morag Allan Campbell, photo reproduced by permission of DC Thomson & Co

The Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum exhibition, currently on display in the Tower Foyer Gallery, University of Dundee, explores the lives of a group of patients admitted to Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum at the turn of the twentieth century.  It has been researched and curated by St Andrews student Morag Allan Campbell, who is in the third year of her PhD in Modern History.  In this blog post, Morag outlines the origins of Face to Face, and her experience of preparing an exhibition for public display.

My research is pretty much based on lunatic asylum records, and I’ve spent a long time reading case notes from the early to mid-nineteenth century, patient histories laid out in page after page of scratchy, florid handwriting.  Reading through those files, I can only guess at what those patients might have looked like, piecing together an idea from physicians’ explanations of their mental disorder. When I turned to notes from later in the century, I began to find small faded photographs stuck into many of the patients’ notes, and I felt as if I had suddenly come face to face with my subjects. I wanted to know more about the lives behind those faces, and to share some of their stories.  And an exhibition seemed to be the best way to do that.

Curating the Face to Face exhibition has had the added benefit of allowing me to research the stories of patients not directly connected with my own research topic, which focusses on women suffering from postnatal mental illness, and has thoroughly immersed me in the experience of putting material together for public display.  I started with the patient histories, selecting and researching a number of cases to gather a range of diagnoses and backgrounds.  I then edited their stories into short texts, and paired them with information on various diagnoses supplied by Professor Rab Houston, who is an expert on the history of psychiatry – many of the diagnoses would be unfamiliar to modern ears, or they had a different meaning from how we use them today.

The next step was to design and layout all the boards – I tried to create a good balance of text and visual material, to attract and engage the reader without overloading them with too much information.  The archivists at Dundee University supplied me with some images to add local context to the patients’ stories, though I did use images from other sources.  In one case, an image from one external source was going to be too costly, and so I ended up grabbing my camera and heading off to take a picture myself – which I used, slightly sepia tinted to match the tone of the other images.

It was nerve-wracking when the time came to send the designs off to the printers, as I was dreading that mistakes might jump out at me when I unwrapped the finished product.  I am indebted to Caroline Brown, Dundee University Archivist, and Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services at the University of Dundee, for their help and advice while I was putting together the exhibition, and not least for their invaluable assistance in proofreading the boards!  Caroline, Jan, Sharon and the rest of the team at the archives offered me plenty of support, and also selected some actual archive material and records for display as part of the exhibition.

Dundee Press Coverage 2.JPGWhen the time came for Matthew and me to put up the boards in the Tower Foyer Gallery, people were already showing an interest and we had a small crowd reading the boards before they had even been fully fixed to the wall.  It has been really amazing to see the interest in the exhibition. Since the launch, I have been working in the archives regularly which, as the department is located in the basement of the Tower Building, has taken me past the exhibition almost every day.  There has scarcely been a time when I have gone past and not found someone intently reading the exhibition boards, and I have also been able to chat with many of the visitors. What has really struck me is how actively people have engaged with the material – each viewer brings their own history and their own views to the experience, and I feel that the exhibition at Dundee has been really successful in opening up a dialogue on the subject of mental health issues past and present.

Putting the exhibition together was not without its difficulties, and it has been many months in the making. We also had ethical and data protection issues to consider before I could even start doing any research. The excitement of actually seeing the boards in place, not to mention the positive feedback which very quickly started to roll in, has more than made up for all the hours spent working away in the archives researching patient histories, and all those further hours spent carefully editing copy and making minute but crucial adjustments to display boards.

Edith.jpgThe exhibition is part of a St Andrews project, ‘Promoting Mental Health through the Lessons of History’ led by Rab Houston, and is a collaboration with University of Dundee Archive Services.   When the exhibition is finished at Dundee, Rab has plans to tour the exhibition.  He has already arranged for a smaller version to be displayed in two Scottish prisons in association with Fife College and the Scottish Prison Service Learning and Skills initiative.  The university has been working in partnership with Fife College as part of the ground-breaking public engagement programme Cell Block Science.

If you would like to host the exhibition, or know of someone else who would, Rab would be happy to hear from you!  Further information is available on the project website. The main exhibition is on display at the University of Dundee until June 9, and is open Monday – Friday 09:30 – 19:00 and on Saturdays from 13:00 – 17:00.

 

 

 

 

 

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

2 Responses to Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum

  1. Pingback: Guest blog at St Andrews School of History | 'This distressing malady'

  2. Pingback: Summer and Autumn Round Up | St Andrews School of History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: