From exorcism to shock therapy, the historical
treatments of the mentally ill can often seem as crazy as the illnesses themselves.
Nowhere is this irony so well documented as at
the Museum Dr Guislain in
Ghent, Belgium, where exhibitions and art
collections trace both the medical and social treatments of mental illness
through time. The
museum’s building itself lays claim to this history, having once been a working
asylum envisioned by Dr Joseph Guislain.
Guislain was one of the first doctors to
insanity could be treated like any other disease, and drew up plans for the
asylum in 1824. Though not constructed until 1857, the asylum represented a
huge shift in how the mentally ill were treated. Instead of isolated, cold cells
where the afflicted were commonly jailed, this new centre included peaceful
inner courtyards, gardens and workshops for making shoes, clothes and other
Today the museum pays tribute to the evolving
art and science of psychiatry with exhibits that document early forms of
treatments – from skull
trepanation, during which a patient’s skull would be bored open with flints or
other primitive tools to allow the “evil spirit” to escape, to more modern-day
medicinal treatments like lithium and antidepressants.
The museum also takes care to remind visitors
that mental illness is far from a strictly medical condition, but one still
informed by social and cultural attitudes of what is considered “normal”. To that
end, the museum also displays an art
collection which explores the concept of “outsider art”: works that exist beyond the
boundaries of classic artistic traditions.
Admission costs six euros for an individual, but
a guided tour for larger groups can be arranged for 60 euros. The museum opens
from 9 am to 5 pm during
the week, but only 1 pm to 5 pm on the