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Psychiatric museums: The return of the undead asylum
journal contributionposted on 03.08.2018, 00:00 by Margaret McallisterMargaret Mcallister, Donna BrienDonna Brien
Two hundred years ago the Bethlem Asylum of London, also known as Bedlam, is reported to have ‘welcomed’ 96,000 visitors who, after paying the entry price of a penny, were permitted to use sticks to poke and enrage inmates (BBC, Aug 2008). Making a special excursion, and then paying money, to enter an asylum may seem strange, but still today people are taking such tours, even though the asylums themselves have long outlived their intended purposes. Asylums are a familiar element in Gothic texts, triggering tension and unease for many reasons. To begin with, asylums embody the terror of being confined, often against one’s will. On another level, they can signify paradox and and a sense of the uncanny – while they may be a haven, for many they are a place of exclusion. Asylums are also often identifiably liminal and unhomely spaces, where inhabitants are forced to live a life that imitates reality, but is not fully real. Moreover, as sites of both experience and contemplation, asylums reveal the uncomfortable dichotomies between reason and unreason. In mirroring the negative aesthetics of the historical asylum, contemporary psychiatric museums may thus reawaken buried anxieties. This paper uses a Gothic lens to explore the psychiatric museum as a site which offers reminders that there is a fine line between reason and unreason for all of us.