‘The free destination for the incurably curious’
Situated on Euston Road, Wellcome Collection was established in 1936 for the will of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome, with the purpose of display engaging material for inquisitive minds. In spite of its primarily medical and scientific vocation, the space has a truly artsy vibe, in its content as well as in the way the material is displayed.
The exhibition I visited with my friend was ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’. The ‘& beyond’ bit of the title speaks volumes of the exhibition’s nature. It’s not merely a historical journey through the evolution of the ‘asylum’, but also (and, in my opinion, most fruitfully) an exploration of what the notion means for mental health today, and what it may turn into in the near future.
Adolf Wölfli, ‘Irren-Anstalt Band-Hain’ (1910)
Among the various stimuli, I was fascinated by the interaction between mental health and art. From the late 19th century onwards, residents of many an asylum were encouraged to create art.’Irren-Anstalt Band-Hain’ (1910), for instance, was created by Adolf Wölfli during his time at the Waldau Clinic (Bern), and fleshes out some of his inner anxieties.
Art revealed useful in mental health issues even in more mundane ways. In 1958, Salvador Dalì designed ‘Crisalida’, the promotional brochure for the psychotropic drug Miltown. His surreal(ist) and unearthly figures well capture the oscillations of psychic life.
The end of the display looked at how to reimagine the asylum, both physically and virtually. A bright-coloured model showcased the potential geography of a futuristic asylum, while comic stripes described a day in the mentally-healthy & happy life of its residents. Guidelines included ‘Remove boundaries’, ‘Stimulate imagination’ and ‘Consider emotional qualities’, which made me think that ‘asylum’ is a state of mind in which we take care of our mental health, every day and everywhere.