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Discovering the Healing Arts in the Crichton Collection’s Scrapbooks

27 July 2023

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What comes to mind when you think of the asylum? Is it the image of the large, isolated, gothic institution, dark and mysterious, surrounded by spiked gates and iron-clad windows? Or do you immediately think of straitjackets and chains, physical restraint and neglect? Acquiring a reputation for being ‘dustbins’ for the imprisonment of the mentally ill, the nineteenth-century psychiatric institution has long been associated with a dark past. However, two large scrapbooks preserved in the archives of one of Scotland’s most progressive nineteenth-century asylums, the Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries, tell a different, perhaps lighter, side to the story.

Compiled by two members of staff, Dr Easterbrook, Physician Superintendent of the hospital between 1908 and 1937, and James Flett, Clerk of Works between 1911 and 1939, these large volumes are filled to the brim with almost 1000 individual items which together, document nearly one hundred years of the hospital’s rich social and cultural life. They also contain a remarkable array of cultural ephemera which draw attention to an important but overlooked aspect of the Crichton’s therapeutic programme: the arts. Nestled amongst newspaper cuttings, photographs and administrative documents can be found hundreds of theatre, concert and dance programmes relating to performances by visiting entertainers and by the Crichton’s very own troupe of dramatic performers, sheet music and song books, a library catalogue listing the volumes of books available at the institution’s library, poems penned and sketches painted by patients, an appeal for funding to form an instrumental band and even the handwritten notes of the asylum’s patient-led theatrical committee![1]

These many fragments of Crichton’s creative history give us a better idea of what day-to-day life in the nineteenth century asylum looked and sounded like. Filled with music and dance, poetry and periodicals, art and drama and a community active patients and staff keen to take on the roles of actors, musicians, writers and artists, the Crichton was an institution where the healing arts clearly formed an integral part of life and treatment.

Capturing the essence of what was one of the most progressive, pioneering and creative asylums in Britain, no other volumes in the Crichton collection document the rich variety of arts-based activities that formed such an essential part of the Crichton Royal’s therapeutic programme in a more vibrant and visual way than the C.R.I and Recreation and Printing Scrapbooks. In fact, much of the material hidden within the many hundreds of pages of these scrapbooks does not exist anywhere else in the archives. If it weren’t for Dr Easterbrook and James Flett’s efforts, many of the treasures of Crichton’s past would likely have been lost and the extent of its artistic history potentially unknown to us today.

Written by Jessica Campbell


[1] 7 sketches by patient John Gilmour were originally attached to Dr Easterbrook’s scrapbook in an envelope and have now been removed to form part of the Crichton’s collection of 20th Century patient art.

Newspaper cuttings, photographs and formal records from 1839, C.R.I. Scrapbook p. 3 DGH1/6/17/1 https://wellcomecollection.org/works/qbqnpe4v/items?canvas=16

The exhibition is produced in collaboration with The Open University, and with the support of the National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange. Additional posts are contributed by members of the Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

 

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