Bethlem Royal Hospital’s name has inspired gleeful fear since it was founded in 1247. By the Jacobean era, the colloquial name for it, Bedlam, had become synonymous with madness and with good reason. Bethlem was an asylum, poorly governed by fiscally inept governors, who made money by allowing the public to visit the inmates for a fee, making a circus act out of the filthy, overcrowded cells. Naturally, it has been juicy source material for artists for centuries; from Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress to Nell Leyshon’s Bedlam at the Globe in 2010.
This exhibition, Bedlam: the asylum and beyond, has collated art by people like David Beales, Eva Kotátková and Shana Moulton, and juxtaposed it with primary sources and testimonies in order to re-examine Bedlam as an architectural space as well as a holistic or conceptual idea. The exhibition is miles away from previous explorations of Bedlam, which have generally been opportunistic and exploitative. Instead, this is a meditative rumination on what asylum means and how its core identifiers; safety, protection, and care, can be repackaged and rejuvenated for our modern age.