Talking of psychiatry and the inclusion of mentally ill people in the society, this one-of-a-kind museum in Belgium is a unique experience one can have when in Ghent.
Deserted medical wards with still furnished iron beds, and old medical equipment lying about here and there, this is what one gets to wonder about. One of these wards also has a mechanical saw used for removing the top of a human skull. There is a collection of photographs inside, which is aimed at communicating with the mentally ill, and a collection that illustrates the history of psychiatry. Some other appliances in the corners of dark, closed rooms are used to handle the sick. A little creepy as it may seem in the beginning, this is probably one of the most unique and socially relevant museums of the world.
In the port city of Ghent in Belgium, the Dr Guislain Museum is a tourist attraction, a bit strange one though. It was a psychiatric institution founded by Dr Jozef Guislain in the 19th-century and was moulded into its present shape in 1986.
A lack of knowledge on mental health care, particularly psychiatry, was the driving factor for the creation of this museum. It was seen that even those who had suffered from mental disorders earlier, were initially shy of coming forth and hence it was decided to open the heritage property as a museum.
Other than confining to the traditional norms of a museum, that of conserving, researching, communicating, and exhibiting the heritage of humanity for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment, the museum also thrives to succeed in proving that the concepts of ‘madness’ or ‘psychiatric disorder’ are not purely medical. There is always a socio-cultural and ideological structure behind them.
The unique exhibitions at the museum play a role in questioning and removing misunderstandings and prejudice associated with brain disorders. They point out the social and cultural aspects of mental health care, draw line between what is normal and abnormal apart from educating the visitors on neuro-scientific developments.
There is a permanent collection of psychiatric tools, machines, photographs, etc on display that aids the process and a temporary one, which consists of artworks by those mentally challenged, disturbed, or socially aloof.
The coming about of the museum
After the hospital was founded in the early 19th century by a religious group, a young Joseph Guislain was appointed as the head physician of the two insane asylums in Ghent – one being of a religious order and the other preaching medicine. This was the beginning of a harmonised work between a group based on beliefs and a man of reason and science. One of the first results of the collaboration was a unique set of rules, which determined how to treat the ill in a dignified and therapeutically manner.
This was when moral treatment was introduced in the country, and the mentally insane were began to be considered ill people. As little violence as possible and prescribed occupational therapy was now being used.
In was not until the early 1980s that a member of the religious group was appointed the general director Dr Guislain Psychiatric Centre. The new head saw great value in both the building and in the old objects that were kept there and came about with the idea of converting it into a museum, and tourist spot of a unique kind.