The challenges of the last few months of covid and lockdown are well known to all of us, and in this blog I will look at how we at Bethlem Museum of the Mind have tried to overcome and adapt to some of these changes, and the new world of digital engagement we find ourselves in.
The Museum of the Mind archive holds the records of Bethlem Royal, the Maudsley and Warlingham Park Hospitals, and the associated structures that governed them. The history of Bethlem alone covers four sites and more than 750 years, and the archive material goes back to the mid-1500s. Our mission is to use these collections, together with our object and art collections, to support greater understanding of issues past and present around mental health.
So how can we encourage and develop new research ideas and new use of the archive if we are unable to offer physical access? Well, there is the tried and tested. We are fortunate that many of our sources have been digitised. This includes a range of minutes of the Board of Governors that go back to 1557, available on our catalogue, and all of our patient records for Bethlem from the 1670s up to 1920, indexed by name on Find My Past. You can see a complete set of what we have digitised on our Museum blog here: https://museumofthemind.org.uk/blog/how-to-use-museum-of-the-minds-online-historical-sources .
Nearly all archives are at least partly digital, and part of my work as archivist has been to make these sources more public through traditional methods of resource creation – not least by creating the guide above- and also by engaging our users via social media. You can see some of the work on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/bethlemmuseumofthemind/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/bethlemmuseum). We were helped by the transfer of our internal computer document system onto a secure cloud-based system, allowing access to all our historic files which we could use. Also, many of our regular internal onsite users also had to go online and we could fulfil virtual tours and talks in a limited fashion over applications like Teams or Zoom.
But this only provided a limited service to some of our users. Most of our visitors look to engage with our subject at a deeper level than the fleeting impression they get from social media. But because our Museum is located within a working Hospital, and all physical access to the site was considerably prescribed, we had to think of new ways to give our users a more meaningful interaction.
Our response was to organise a couple of different projects. We released a series of YouTube videos based on historical books about mental health as a virtual book club, allowing our users to read along with our Director, which we followed up with a series of videos about our art collection – you can find them all here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxNo9mRSgiDt01QmrFZT0yw/playlists
Our most important adaptation was to run our archival research project into the lives of Bethlem patients, Change Minds, entirely online. You can read more about the project here: https://museumofthemind.org.uk/blog/about-change-minds-online. Our twelve participants selected a patient admitted to Bethlem in 1887, and over the course of two months learned how to research and write up their personal histories, and made a creative response to what they found out about their person’s lives. Not only did the project create a really attractive online exhibition of the creative work, it also created a series of thought-provoking, and very different, blogs exploring the lives of the patients. Change Minds was based on a project run by Norfolk Record Office that featured physical classrooms and visits, but these sessions were run entirely online, using new and existing online and digital resources to create something entirely new.
As we move to limited reopening, and the threat of a possible lockdown, we will take forward some of these initiatives. Our opening, which now features limited tours, is very staff-intensive, but we will take forward our remote engagement, especially with our social media, as a really effective way of using our resources. Our work with the bookclub has given us new ideas of how to reach our users even if the Museum is inaccessible, and we hope to be able to run another iteration of Change Minds early in the New Year.
Our adventure into the new world of digital outreach has been a learning experience for us. We still have very important questions to answer, especially about providing good quality access via online tools to everyone, however if we can offer a range of possibilities and opportunities we can keep a wide audience even at distance.
If you would like to have a try at researching a Victorian casebook from Bethlem, like we did for our Change Minds Project myself and my colleague Amy Moffat will be running Presumed Curable twice during the Being Human Festival, on 13th November and 17th November from 2.00pm. During these live sessions we’ll be guiding our researchers on what to look for and the huge amount of information you can glean from these often-overlooked records.