Before our decision to work together on A Private Land, we knew the Glenside Hospital Museum housed a fascinating collection mostly relating to the history of mental health care and specifically Glenside Hospital, set within the grounds of the buildings which opened in 1861 as the Bristol Paupers Lunatic Asylum. We had been in conversation with Stella Man, who was enthusiastic that we should see “Looking to the Light”, the temporary exhibition by artists responding to the collection. We visited on 1st February.
As we approached, we were struck by the position of the previous Asylum Chapel that houses the museum collection, being similar to that of the position of the chapel at Talgarth in relationship to the rest of the asylum buildings. A world away from the neglected and vandalised ruins of the Mid Wales Hospital at Talgarth, the original Bristol Lunatic Asylum (renamed Beaufort War Hospital, then Bristol Mental Hospital, finally Glenside Hospital) is now the University of the West of England Faculty of Health and Social Care.
Entering the museum we were greeted by Anwyl Cooper-Willis and given a warm welcome and introduction to the collection and temporary art exhibition. The museum is busy and stimulating, the volunteers and staff show pride in the museum’s upkeep, collection and general liveliness. Near the entrance there was a very interesting series of photographs and information about former patients based on research by Dr Paul Tobia, who has been studying the patients at Bristol’s mental hospital, 1861-1900, using the patient records at Bristol Archives and archives across Britain.
That so much has been lovingly saved at Glenside, and former patients finally remembered and honoured was deeply moving, but we couldn’t help feeling a sense of sadness that virtually nothing has been saved from the Mid Wales Hospital, and former patients’ histories are obscured. Why was this the case? It may be that in a small rural community mental illness is more tabooed and just something that shouldn’t be talked about, which means that a vast amount of human experience is negated. For whatever reasons or happenstance that the Mid Wales Hospital and contents has been left to rot, it feels so important now – at the very last possible moment – to preserve something, and most particularly look for the voices of those who were treated there.
Our visit left us inspired and grateful to those who have worked so hard here to keep histories alive. A fantastic outcome of our project would be the beginning of some kind of archive for the Mid Wales Hospital that would be accessible to all, a springboard for discussions about mental health and its treatments historically and in the present day.