Yesterday, Mike and I met with the lovely Jane Pightling at the Stephen Beaumont Museum of Mental Health in Wakefield. Secreted within the grounds of Fieldhead Hospital, walking into the museum is a little like walking into an Aladdin’s cave: it’s full of fascinating items that tell the story of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (later, Stanley Royd Hospital), from its beginnings in 1818 to its closure in the 1990s.
Walking into the museum, we were met with an imposing marble-topped mortuary table – an item that invites the visitor to consider both the long-term nature of many patients’ stays within the asylum, but also the importance of post-mortem and brain research in casting light upon the pathology of mental disease.
Just a few steps away is a padded cell; elsewhere are iron manacles and a straitjacket. These stock items of asylum history are, however, set alongside other objects that tell a much deeper story about the care of the asylum patient: a hydrotherapy bath, printing blocks, hand tools, and patient art.
In a corner stands a beautiful wooden lectern in the shape of an eagle, and on the opposite wall is a cleverly fashioned mirror frame – both made by patients. On one wall are photographs and programmes from theatrical productions put on by patients and staff, and sheet music and scripts testament to a staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury’.
The museum contains many stories and voices – of patients, attendant and nursing staff, doctors, and local people. Its location within the hospital grounds is, we discovered, ideal: Jane explained to us how school groups might arrive in the museum to learn about the history of electro-convulsive therapy, before going to look at the hospital’s modern ECT suite.
Under the umbrella of South West Yorkshire Partnership’s Change Lab project, the museum staff are currently looking at how to get even more out of their collections in order to raise awareness of the history of mental illness, and the experience of those with mental health problems.
Delegates at the Science in the Asylum conference on 19 October are warmly invited to visit the museum after the conference for a look at the exhibits, as well as some light refreshment, where Jane and her colleagues will be on hand to talk about the collections and future plans.
For those not attending the conference, the museum is free to visit and currently opens each Wednesday between 10am and 3.30pm. Visits outside these hours can also be arranged by contacting Jane or another member of the museum team on 01924 328654.
- Jennifer Wallis