Madness and Modernity at Wellcome Collection

The exhibition, coiling like a snake around rough wooden barriers and cardboard walls inside the Wellcome Collection, has the pretentious topical specificity of a university dissertation. Madness and Modernity explores topics of mental health and psychological treatment in 1900s Vienna.

Words which come to mind are ‘morbidly’ and ‘fascinating’. Here on display is a long strip of an 1890 newspaper, covered with manic, hypergraphic scribbles. The annotation explains this as the work of Frau St, presumed schizophrenic and completely lost to history aside from this single artwork. A reproduction of a metal-wired cage is also on display. Far from being the torture device it resembles, it was originally designed for the (completely painless, apparently) treatment of everything from depression to hysteria by means of electrical current. Unsurprising, for a time when Nikola Tesla was virtually a rock star.

The time period selected for the exhibit is not incidental. The turn of the century marked a significant shift in the way mental health was perceived by both professionals and in society at large. The end of the XIX century was the beginning of the end for hoarding the insane into monasteries and loony bins and waiting for God’s grace to cure them.

As a hallmark of this, the exhibit presents a scale model of the impressive Am Steinhof psychiatric facility which opened in Vienna in 1907: over a thousand acres to accommodate 2,500 patients and 500 staff. Nevertheless, the methodologies and attitudes of the time are shocking to the modern observer.

The unsettling implied assumption lurking underneath the paintings and scale models is: How shocking will the methods of our current modernity be in a century’s time?

Although Madness and Modernity raises some pertinent philosophical and ethical questions, the exhibit itself is, to put it mildly, limited. Most of the objects on display are either reproductions, of the ‘what X might have looked like’ type, or irrelevant in the greater sense of the word. Probably the most interesting are the patients’ artworks, often macabre and unsettling, but usually quite talented.

Of course, Freud’s name haunts the exhibit like a needy, unfashionable spectre. A painting once hung in his study, depicting the completely unorthodox ‘treatment’ of a young woman gives an eerie insight into the Grandfather of Psychology’s attitude towards the mentally ill. On the other hand, lumping him with the lobotomies and ‘mechano-therapy’ equipment could fortunately mean that his philosophy is finally being accepted as outdated.

Madness and Modernity is an exhibit for the enthusiasts: psychology majors, historians and researchers. There are some interesting tableaux to be seen for the average Joe, but by and large, it simply doesn’t explain enough, show enough or connect the dots enough to be a place of mainstream interest.

Madness and Modernity @ The Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road


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