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Exploring mental health in Vienna

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Explore inside the 'Tower of Fools', an 18th Century mental asylum in Vienna (Footage courtesy of David Bickerstaff)

The ominous round, Narrenturm, nicknamed the "Tower of Fools", still stands in Vienna. It is where the city sent their insane during the late 18th Century.

The winding corridors seem to echo with the pain of the 140 inmates who were chained to the walls and provided only with straw mats for sleeping.

"They were treated as animals and were considered dangerous lunatics," said Dr Leslie Top, an architectural historian and curator of Madness and Modernity, a new exhibition at The Wellcome Collection, London.

Anxious Vienna

where patients lived parallel lives
Model of Steinhof mental asylum, where patients lived parallel lives

The exhibition looks at the relationships between mental illness, the visual arts and architecture in Vienna around 1900.

"While the whole of Europe was interested in mental health during this time, what was different about Vienna, is that it also had a cultural interest explored through the visual arts," said Dr Topp.

The exhibition includes designs for utopian psychiatric spaces, drawings of the patients confined within them and pathological photos used by doctors to indentify a diseased body.

Dr Topp adds: "Vienna acted like a magnet, drawing in people from far and wide to make their way. However, this lead to a widespread cultural anxiety, a lack of rootedness.

"Coupled with this were fears about the modern city and a faster pace of life. There was the perception that people would become mentally unhinged."

Parallel life

Electrotherapeutic cage
An electrotherapeutic cage used in Steinhof mental hospital.

A film installation by artist David Bickerstaff, which explores Narrenturm mental asylum, is part of the display. It contrasts with another video of Vienna's mental hospitals, the Steinhof, built approximately 100 years later.

"From the mid 19th Century onwards, there was a strong acceptance that the mentally ill were not inhuman - they had to be confined, but they could enjoy their liberty within the institution.

"There was an enlightenment, which went along with philosophy at the time concerned with human rights and prison reform, a belief that buildings could play a role in transforming lives," said Dr Topp.

Steinhof, partly designed by the father of modern architecture, Otto Wagner, was a kind of model town for the insane.

"Patients lived a parallel life to those in Vienna. There was a farm, theatre, elaborate landscaping, and a chapel.

"A big model of Steinhof from 1907, is my favourite part of the exhibition," said Dr Topp.

"This was used to publicise the institution was now open. The Government of Austria wanted its people to know what it had been doing".

The exhibition

Asylum architecture is just one of the six areas explored in the exhibition.

Others include: The Patient Artist, which is devoted to art made by two patients who were confined to psychiatric institutions, and Pathological Portraits, which exhibits photographs of psychiatric patients in circulation at the time to show a 'diseased' body.

Madness and Modernity is on at the Wellcome Collection, London, from 1 April to 28 June.



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