New Museum London exhibit pleads asylum

"Cultivating Care" puts mental asylum stereotypes to rest

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

London Asylum

Courtesy of Museum London

AH, SIMPLER TIMES. Museum London unveiled the exhibit “Cultivating Care: Life and Treatment at London’s Asylum” this past Saturday. The above photograph reveals the grounds at the London Asylum pre-1917. Below left, workers are in the asylum’s cabbage fields in the late 1800s whille below right, patients make crafts in 1940.

Straitjackets and lobotomies usually come to mind at the mention of a mental asylum. Throwing aside these stereotypes, there are some therapeutic practices of mental asylums " practices being emphasized by Museum London in its latest exhibit “Cultivating Care: Life and Treatment at London’s Asylum.”

Opened this past Saturday, the exhibit provides an in-depth look into what happened inside and outside the walls of the former London Asylum.

Maya Hirschman, curator of regional history at Museum London, acknowledges that despite its taboo status, mental illness is actually quite common in North American society.

“Mental health and mental well-being and disorders is something that affects everyone in some way,” Hirschman says. She also notes “20 per cent of Canadians are affected first-hand.”

Workers in the cabbage fields

Though mental illness can be a sensitive topic, Museum London decided to organize the “Cultivating Care” exhibit after being approached by St. Joseph’s Regional Mental Health Care, Hirschman explains. The centre has its own Archival and Teaching Museum that was opened to the community in the past.

“It’s been closed to the public because they didn’t have the expertise to look after the collection,” Hirschman explains. “It would have been nice to get the stuff out and visible to the public and involved in the community, so they approached us.”

Hirschman clarifies that out of about 500 pieces, only those that “tell the most complete story of what was, at one time, called the London Asylum” were chosen to be included in the exhibit.

“People will, of course, be drawn to the sensational objects " the ones that speak to the stereotype that we think of " and that’s both good and bad,” Hirschman admits. She stresses the necessity of understanding that these objects are part of the past. Items visible at the exhibit are a continuous bathtub, original furniture and the prosthetic leg of Richard Maurice Bucke.

Bucke was the second superintendent of the asylum and believed in Moral Therapy, a practice that promotes treating patients as humanely as possible.

Patients make crafts

“[Moral Therapy] involved getting patients exercising and active, and engaged in nature and it was a philosophy of non-restraint,” Hirschman explains. “The goal of Moral Therapy was to re-humanize the patients in as natural of a way as possible.”

Farming was one of the natural practices used to cure the patients, and in the 1800s the asylum had over 200 acres dedicated to farming. The institution even won awards for its produce. Bucke and his noteworthy accomplishments are a main component of the exhibit.

“Cultivating Care” exposes the public to what actually occurred at the former London Asylum. It settles the stereotypes of mental asylums by revealing a part of the institution most people do not reflect upon " the more humane and less exploitative practice of Moral Therapy.

“Cultivating Care: Life and Treatment at London’s Asylum” runs until May 24 at Museum London.

Share this article on:

Facebook | DiggDigg |

Copyright © 2008 The Gazette