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December 9, 2008

BehindTheMedspeak: Museum of the Mind


Elisabetta Povoledo's October 28, 2008 New York Times article about the eight-year-old Mind's Museum in Rome (Italy) was the first I'd ever heard about this singular institution; her piece follows.

    In Rome, a New Museum Invites a Hands-On Approach to Insanity

    The logo of the Mind’s Museum is an overturned funnel. It is a reference to a 15th-century painting [top] by Hieronymus Bosch that depicts a doctor using a scalpel to extract an object (the supposed “stone of madness”) from the skull of a patient. The doctor is wearing a funnel as a hat.

    “It’s one of the earliest icons of madness,” said Pompeo Martelli, the psychiatrist turned director of this unusual museum, which is in the former psychiatric hospital of Santa Maria della Pietà on the northwestern outskirts of Rome. (In its earlier days “there was an out of sight, out of mind mentality,” he said.) The painting, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, invites the obvious question of who is more mad, the doctor or the hapless patient.

    The Santa Maria hospital was closed in 1978 after the passage of an Italian law substituting community services for institutionalized care of many of the mentally ill.

    Overturning preconceptions about mental illness is the leitmotif of the eight-year-old Mind’s Museum (museodellamente.it), which reopened this month after a high-tech overhaul by Studio Azzurro, a Milan-based art collective that works mostly with interactive and video environments.

    “The idea was to make it extremely participatory, a museum that can register and note the impressions of the visitor,” said Paolo Rosa, who founded Studio Azzurro with two other artists in 1982. “It’s not a static but a dynamic project, in continuous flux.”

    In one interactive installation, next to a painted sign that reads, “Up close, no one is normal,” visitors try to synchronize recorded and mirror images of themselves. “It’s about seeking a balance between what you are and what you see,” Dr. Martelli said.

    In another, visitors sit for a photograph that is projected onto a board along with photos of past patients at the institution, who recount their life stories in sad, lilting taped monologues.

    In yet another, visitors are invited to sit at a desk and hold their hands over their ears to hear the singsong whispers of unseen voices. “That’s one of the symptoms of madness, isn’t it?” Dr. Martelli said, smiling.

    Explaining the concept, Mr. Rosa of Studio Azzurro said: “The spectator assumes madness and unconsciously adopts the guise of someone on the inside. We didn’t want to dramatize but to include drama, and to let loose the imaginative dimension that madness elicits, which can be fertile even for those who think themselves as sane.”

    The Mind’s Museum is a more hands-on — and heads-on — experience than other European psychiatric museums like the Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent, Belgium, or the Het Dolhuys Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands.

    Unlike some directors and curators in this museum field, Dr. Martelli was not interested in examining the role that art can play in treating mental illness. There is no collection of patient paintings like that of the Prinzhorn collection of the Psychiatric University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, for example. (Still, the artwork of two inmates and that of a doctor is included in two installations.)

    “It’s nice — it’s a way of lightening everything that happened in here,” said Maria Morena, a former psychiatric nurse at the hospital who can remember a time when patients lived 60 to a pavilion, eating with spoons (nothing sharp) and sleeping on cotton sheets so stiff that “they scratched like sandpaper.”

    The museum is on the main floor of Pavilion 6 of the former psychiatric complex, which today also houses national health system offices.

    “Our mission is linked to public health, but we’re somewhat atypical,” said Dr. Martelli, whose mandate includes preserving more than 250,000 case histories of patients who were treated there since around 1850. “We are preserving and protecting that patrimony.”

    It is the largest historical psychiatric archive in Italy, Dr. Martelli said. Using software developed by his staff, other Italian psychiatric archives have been following his lead, and a resulting network will provide researchers with a database that tracks past psychiatric trends and tendencies in Italy.

    Yet the museum’s target audience is not scholars or specialists, but rather high school and middle school students, which explains its embrace of Studio Azzurro’s high-tech interactive approach. (At the end of the day, it takes museum workers about 10 minutes to go through the dozen rooms and shut down all the computers and instruments.)

    “Today it’s not enough to go into a classroom and hand out pamphlets about schizophrenia or anorexia,” Dr. Martelli said. “Young people are on another wavelength.”

    Originally, the museum, which opened in 2000, followed a more traditional line, with objects and panel explanations. “It wasn’t that useful to opening a discourse” on the stigma of mental illness, Dr. Martelli said. But it was set up by a group of psychiatrists rather than curators or museum experts.

    On a recent day Chiara Preti, a high school teacher who grew up nearby, toured the refitted museum as part of a training course with other colleagues. She said she found the experience useful.

    “The point the museum makes is that mental illness is a disease,” she said. “It doesn’t give a moral or a political judgment.”

    She recalled that in her childhood, her father would give spare change to former patients who hung around the grounds even after the hospital had shut down.

    “It was a part of the city,” she said. “And with the museum, it’s kind of nice having its history be part of your life.”

December 9, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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