Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In a Dark Wood: Words and Images of Mental Distress Across a Century

Sheffield’s third Festival of the Mind (15-25 Sep 2016) will be kicking off this week with a full programme of varied events across the city.  Included in the programme is a project called In a Dark Wood: Words and Images of Mental Distress Across a Century.

This collaboration between Archive Sheffield, Sheffield City Archives, and Professor Brendan Stone (University of Sheffield) will explore changing perceptions of mental distress/illness by drawing both on contemporary accounts and on the photographic archive of South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum (later Middlewood Hospital) in Sheffield.  A collection of large-plate glass negatives, kept in the Sheffield City Archives, and almost certainly unseen in the last hundred years, offer a powerful window into a different era of medical care.
The history of photography in mental hospitals is a long one, dating back to the work of Hugh Diamond in the mid-19th century. Diamond was a doctor, photographer, and the Superintendent of Surrey County Asylum. The practice soon became widespread, and was based on the idea that the photographic image could provide an accurate and scientific insight into ‘insanity’. In Diamond’s influential 1856 paper ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity’ he claimed that the use of photography negated the need “to use the vague terms which denote a difference in the degree of mental suffering”, and that photographic images indicated “the exact point which has been reached in the scale of unhappiness”.
The photographing of patients was predicated on a desire to ameliorate suffering. Nevertheless, what may strike us now is the inadequacy of an approach which focused on surface appearance. As we look at these almost 100 year-old images from the old Middlewood Hospital, we might reflect on the stories and voices of those we witness, and wonder how many were untold, unheard. There is no identifying information included with the images, nor any explanation as to why they were taken.
These anonymised images will be presented alongside contemporary audio reflections on the nature of illness/distress and care from people currently living with mental health problems. The combination of images and sound will represent a kind of dialogue across time which will generate insight and provoke thought about differing perceptions of mental health, as well as drawing out resonances. Visitors to the exhibition will be invited to leave their own thoughts and reflections in response to the exhibits.
The exhibition In a Dark Wood will be showing at Bank Street Arts from 15-25 Sep 2016 as part of the Festival of the Mind.

Date: Thu 15 - Sun 25 September 2016

Time: 11am-4pm, except 11am-9pm on Wednesday 21 September
Location: Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street. Sheffield, S1 2DS
Entry: Free

© Glass negative images from the collections at Sheffield City Archives (Sheffield Libraries), [early 20th cent.], reference: NHS3/5/26.