Back in January I caught the last few days of the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on the mental asylum, seen through various prisms including a contemporary art installation, historical documents, videos and sculpture and a modern re-imagining of asylum space. The exhibition highlighted a number of key points where music was considered in relation to madness. Robert Burton’s 1629 Anatomy of Melancholy, for example, recommended music along with drugs, bloodletting, prayer, exercise, diet, friendships and occupation as potential treatments for particular forms of mental illness. The following century, Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica was invented with the intention of soothing distress, but was considered by many to be overstimulating and a possible cause of madness.
The final part of the exhibition focussed on a series of workshops and interviews in which the idea of a modern asylum had been investigated. The resulting artworks, models and displays considered the five senses alongside more practical elements of an ‘ideal’ asylum space in which mental health could be nurtured and healed. Rather than assimilating patients to the social norms of the nineteenth century, where participating in large-group activity was valued, here it was the individual needs that were being attended to. Yet I wondered how nineteenth-century practices might fit into the modern asylum being mooted. Would patients be invited to attend an asylum night club, where social anxieties and inhibitions could be faced (with or without the assistance of mood-altering substances)? Perhaps an upbeat asylum radio station offering performance and DJ-ing opportunities, or a resident samba band with visiting Strictly Come Dancing stars to accompany picnics and excursions? And what might modern health professionals think to being expected to join the band or the theatre group, or coach the football team? Music and dance are common practice in therapeutic treatment today, but transplanting nineteenth-century ideas into the modern conception of asylum certainly gives some food for thought.