Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Nothing About Us Without Us: Thoughts on Mental Health and Medical Museums

Dennis William Reed at Glenside Hospital Museum

We live in a place where autism is an allistic's special interest, where disability is a dress up box and mental illness the halloween costume of choice. This ideological occupation is as interesting to me, as relevant to me, as the colonization of my home country. And when Saidiya Hartman speaks of the violence of the archive, and when mental institutions serve as museums, serve as most haunted sites, serve as shock and gore, to slip in an out of like a Tesco costume straightjacket, it is necessary to reclaim these sites also. I edit an art and literature journal on mental health, I work at a mental health museum, Glenside Hospital, dedicated to empowerment through reclamation, I'm writing a novel on mental health stuff. (Sooo either I'm an amazing advocate or I just really like talking about myself?! Most likely the latter). 

a Nobrium advertisement spread in MIMS, from October, 1974, p.62, part of the Glenside Hospital Museum’s Library

I have worked in museums and archives since I was a teenager. The oral history department of British Library where I worked so many years remains, in my opinion, a site of radical action.

 The Concise Home Doctor, part of Glenside Hospital Museum’s Library

Even seemingly 'progressive' mental health narratives are limited, relying on straight up bad chronic illness analogies with unsettling ableist implications, Western white washed histories and a failure to understand intersecting experience such as class, race and gender that informs the individual experience.

Mad Pride Parade in Brazil, 2009

In this sense we must look, not just to our libraries, but to our museums to understand, when it comes to subjects of race, mental health, disability and neurodiversity, whose telling what story and why. 

This doesn't necessarily mean writing the next Ulysses, even though that's y'kno cool too. We can work with what we've got here. Because even though we might not get taught it at school the history of disability, learning difficulties and mental health is rich and deep and awesome. It can just be finding our more about activists like Ed Roberts, the ADAPT protests (images of these movements are like my reblogged images on tumblr? more than ABBA outfits! people wanna know about this stuff!!) reading work actually written by people with mental health struggles, particularly those whose voices are less likely to be heard, less likely to get a fancy book deal.

The Glenside Museum Pinterest and Tumblr that I set up and manage.

It's not that these stories don't exist (they do, they exist in multitudes) it's just that they are lacking the right platform. And I want to see them spoken loud in the very spaces that sought to silence them.

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