Book Review: Reynolds on Coleborne & Mackinnon, eds, Exhibiting Madness in Museums

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Catharine Coleborne, Dolly MacKinnon, eds. Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry Through Collection and Display. New York: Routledge, 2011. 218 pp. $140.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-88092-3; ISBN 978-0-203-80710-1.

Reviewed by Pat Reynolds (Independent historian)
Published on H-Disability (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

Professional Accounts, Peep Shows, and Other Possibilities

This is a welcome addition to a growing literature which examines museum practice in relation to collections assembled for a medical purpose. In many parts of the world, the last two decades have seen a reassessment of such practice in order to take into account approaches and ideas arising from disability studies, and from the increased rights of people with disabilities to access the collections, not only as audiences or readers, but also as curators and exhibitors. This is exemplified by the work at Goodna, Australia, the subject of a paper by Mark Besley and Mark Finnane in this collection. Peter Beresford has gone further and called for museums which are controlled by survivors, in all their aspects, as an alternative to “professional accounts or ... another peep show.”[1] The focus of this book, subtitled Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display, seems somewhat out of step with the times and firmly locates this volume in the expert world of psychiatrists rather than the multiple worlds of patients, nurses, family, other healthcare professionals, ancillary staff, or those living in the locale of the asylum. Such worlds are not ignored, but are estranged from the main narrative. There are advantages to this focus, such as providing a space to discuss the ethics of museum practice relating to collections of psychiatrists and their institutions, but the resulting lacunae call for a companion volume with a focus on the users and potential users of the collections. Similarly, the authors bring experience from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth and show that the history of psychiatric practice varies widely. This diversity suggest a need for a companion volume which might include experiences from the rest of the world.

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