International Conference at the Department of History and Ethics of Medicine at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendof in cooperation with the University Luxembourg and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Ottersberg.
Organised by Monika Ankele, UKE Hamburg, and Benoît Majerus, University Luxembourg.
A couple of weeks ago, I hopped on a plane on a grim and grizzly Manchester morning and headed for a rather more sunny and pleasant Hamburg. I was bound for the Department of History and Ethics of Medicine at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendof for the Material Cultures of Psychiatry conference organised by Monika Ankele and Benoît Majerus. You can review the full programme here. This conference brought together researchers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds who seek to understand the history and practice of psychiatric medicine through its material culture(s). This event was (obviously) firmly anchored in psychiatric medicine, however I think followers of the blog with an interest in material culture, interdisciplinarity, patient experience, and medical heritage will be interested in this event. As such I wanted to write a little about some of the parts of the conference that really stood out for me. I’ve tried to write a fairly brief summary of the conference, so have limited myself by focussing on the key themes that I have been reflecting on since returning to my research after the event. However, if you are interested in a more detailed summary of papers and performances go to my Twitter to view live tweeting of the entire three days.
The two aspects of the event that have really made me reflect on the relationship between psychiatry and materiality since were the venue itself, and the performance art/artistic research pieces that featured over the three days. The conference took place in the Department of History and Ethics of Medicine which also houses a dissection hall dating from 1926, and a Medical History Museum. Over the two days the dissection hall hosted art exhibitions, including a display of sculpture on the first evening, and an interpretive dance performance on the second day. Being surrounded by historic medical objects over the course of the event kept the importance of the material aspects of medicine at the forefront of discussions and of thoughts. Not only was the venue itself brimming with the material elements of medical history, but there was space devoted to artistic research into psychiatric medicine throughout the two days. One of my favourite pieces was a sculpture of a head that was made out of bread. This highlighted how appropriations of materials in psychiatric facilities can often be an important outlet for patients who would otherwise be limited in their ability to express themselves through art. This theme of material appropriations was mirrored in several of the papers which highlighted how patients manipulated the material cultures of psychiatry with which they were presented in institutional spaces in order to express themselves and exercise agency.
The dissection hall itself reminded me of the centrality of space to the experience of medicine. The hall was large and well-lit by bright natural light that filtered through the windows that encircled the room along the upper-most part of the walls. It was designed in this way to allow dissections to take place without the distortions thought to be created by electric lighting. Additional light was provided by large ceiling lights that were suspended like pendulums from the roof, illuminating the ten stone dissection tables dispersed throughout the room. The walls are white-washed and the marble floor is made of marble, creating a clean, clinical aesthetic. The lack of soft materials and the presence of marble and stone in walls, ceiling, and floor created echoes, projecting sound loudly throughout the space. This was highlighted in the performance ‘Thin Sheets’, by Kirstin Burckhardt with Lara Bogataj, Daniela Böttcher, Dinah Büchner, Marie Golüke, Sophia Guttenhöfer, Raha Emami Khansari, and Nicola Riede, during which the performers began their piece by making sounds, almost like chanting or singing, filling the room with soundwaves that seemingly took on a life of their own once released between the hard surfaces of the room. Spending time in this space led me to reflect on the relationship between the material cultures of psychiatric spaces and sensory experiences of them. The soundscapes of medical spaces were undoubtedly just as important to the experiences of patients and practitioners as the material dimensions of medicine, psychiatric or otherwise.
Dissection Hall, UKE Hamburg. Photo Credit, Linnea Kuglitsch
‘Thin Sheets’ also provoked the audience to consider the relationship between medical objects and embodied experiences of medicine. The group were not allowed to use the dissection tables in their performance for conservation reasons, leading to discussion about the tension in the keeping of medical collections: there is a need to preserve, but also a desire to understand embodied experiences of medicine by using and interacting with objects as originally intended.
Throughout the conference, we were prompted by artistic interventions to consider the embodied nature of experiences of the material cultures of psychiatry. The first evening features a performance by Kirsi Heimonen and Sari Kuuva entitled, ‘Corridor that moves. Bringing forth the materiality of objects of mental hospital. Approaches to artistic research and study of visual culture’. In this piece Sari read quotes from a patient which described his experience of space in a psychiatric facility. Alongside these readings, photographs of the spaces discussed were displayed on the projection screen and Kirsi performed using dance and speeches to explore the physicality of the spaces described. Through this performance, Kirsi highlighted the effects of these spaces on the body of the patient, and explored how psychiatric spaces could provide light and access to the outdoors, but they could also be constraining.
Michelle Williams Gamaker, Violeta Paez Armando, Hazal Kaygusuz gave a performance/lecture entitled ‘Psychogeographic Explorations of the body: The effectiveness of symbols’ in which they explored the significance of symbolism in shaping the relationship between doctors and patients. Beginning with a discussion of Foucault’s analysis of the importance of theatre in the creation of the doctor-patient relationship, the centrality of the material world in creating this theatre was highlighted. The performance began by recounting Foucault’s analysis of an incident in which a mental patient believed himself to be dead, and because he was a ghost, refused to eat. Doctors convinced him to eat by dressing up as ghosts and consuming food as he watched to persuade him that even the dead had to eat. This analysis of the importance of theatre in bringing about a cure was highlighted by the performers’ dress which was entirely white, and their white-painted, ghostly faces. As the tale of this patient was recounted the performers consumed apples, drawing our attention to the theatrical element of the cure described by Foucault. After this, the audience were tied to Michelle with pieces of string, reminding us of the tie and connection of the doctor-patient relationship. I was struck by the degree to which this apparently simple action brought me into a relationship; that by seeing the physical tie provided by the piece of red string a connection was created. This underlined the degree to which symbolism can be integral in creating relationships between a medical practitioner and their patient. Once again, seeing the effects of material cultures through performances which not only discussed and examined objects, but actually utilised their physical elements, demonstrated in a way which words cannot articulate the centrality of material cultures to medical experiences.
‘Psychogeographic Explorations of the Body’
The effects of patients’ embodied experiences of the material cultures of psychiatry were highlighted in a number of papers. Karin Eli discussed the significance of objects and embodiment in experiences of anorexia nervosa, highlighting the physical aspect of a mental illness which is often framed in terms of emptiness and rejection of the physical. Anatole Le Bras discussed the use of the shed as a confinement device used by families in rural France during the nineteenth century to manage insane relatives in the home. He noted the effects of the physical structures of these sheds on the bodies of patients who were depicted as hunched and disfigured by doctors when they were admitted to asylums. Linnea Kuglitsch examined archaeological finds from Eastern State Lunatic Asylum, Virginia, and the Western Lunatic Hospital, Washington, to demonstrate how patients smuggled illicit natural objects into the asylum from outdoor spaces to bring elements of nature inside. Maia Isabelle Woolner demonstrated that in twentieth-century francophone psychiatry, even time was materialized to construct therapeutic spaces, activities and diagnoses. Louise Hide’s excellent paper on the introduction of television sets on psychiatric wards in English mental hospitals revealed how TV changes ward spaces, staff/patient relationships, and daily routines in the institution.
After returning to my work after these fascinating few days, I’ve really been thinking about the inseparability of psychiatric objects from patients’ or doctors’ uses of them. It was surely the physical experience of objects and psychiatric spaces which elicited responses from patients rather than simply the mere presence of such objects. As an historian, this basic observation too often slips my mind. The performances, displays, and papers given at this conference have prompted me to go back to the museum collection I work with and reacquaint myself with the textures, weight, smells, of the objects which I write about in my thesis, and to think carefully about the ways in which the material world of the asylum would have been experienced by the patients who occupied its rooms and interacted with its objects.
Natalie Mullen is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on patient agency and medical authority in the nineteenth-century asylum. She is also a co-founder of the North West Medical Humanities PG Network.