MadHouse, My House? opens at Hackney Museum
Until the 1980s many people with learning disabilities were forced to live in hospitals for 'idiots', 'imbeciles' and the 'feeble minded'.
A new display opening in Hackney Museum this week explores the history of this institutionalisation through the lives of two ex-patients: Harvey Waterman and Mabel Cooper. Harvey and Mabel were made to live in St Lawrence’s Hospital in Surrey under the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913.
“You would think you were going into a Madhouse, because of the noise”, Mabel once said “There was bars on the windows. It was like a prison.”
The voices of those institutionalised have long been ignored by or hidden from society. This display aims to change that. Part of a wider project that also looks at institutionalisation today, the exhibition shares the stories of patients’ daily lives and living conditions in institutions during the 20th century.
The exhibition is accessible to all, using touch, sight, smell and sound to open up the history of learning disabilities for all people, with or without disability, to think about, interpret and question.
The display was researched and created by members of Access All Areas, a Hackney-based theatre company that works with adults with learning disabilities. Its wider MADHOUSE project explores institutionalisation past and present through events, performances and exhibitions.
Nick Llewellyn, Artistic Director at Access All Areas said: “We’re thrilled to be working with Hackney Museum to bring this display to life. Mabel has an important legacy and Harvey still attends our weekly Black Cab Theatre Company. He’s 80 this year. Many people don’t realise that people still living suffered treatment like this.”
The history of wide-scale institutionalisation under the Mental Deficiency Act is often reserved for archives and academic papers. Through this display at Hackney Museum, Access All Areas has unlocked this history, given voice to the patients who suffered under institutionalisation, and allowed people with learning disabilities access to their own heritage. Connecting people to a seldom shared history in an inclusive and accessible way.