The whole surrounding was telling the story, and the story was a question: What is normal? And it challenged you.
~ Lieke Ketelaars

A five-minute walk from the Central station, nestled in the greenery surrounding the ‘Schotersingel canal, is where the City of Haarlem’s former medieval leprosarium and madhouse can be found. Nowadays, this eclectic historic building, complete with a 14th century chapel, is home to the Museum of the Mind, continuing seven centuries as a caring institution. This is no coincidence, as the province of North Holland was the site of four of the Netherland’s major psychiatric institutions before the process of deinstitutionalization started.

As institutional care was increasingly replaced by community care at the end of the 20th century, members of the Dutch psychiatric community became aware that artefacts held in existing institutional museums faced an uncertain future. An initiative was launched to bring these rich historical collections under one roof and create a museum for the history of psychiatry. What place could be more fitting than the former madhouse and leprosarium in nearby Haarlem? An application was made to repurpose the recently vacated building as a museum and in 2005 the Dolhuys (Mad House) Museum officially opened its doors. This was not a state- or a community-led project: the original funding and direction came from foundations linked to four of the country’s major ecumenical mental health organizations.

The new museum was informed by significant changes in the mental health world that unfolded in the later 20th century. Deinstitutionalization of psychiatric services in countries of the Global North brought community living, survivor activism, public critiques of psychiatry, and a move to recovery-based paradigms of healing. From the start museum staff were open to including voices from post-institutional psych-survivor movements, adopting a “social value” approach to their work of conserving and telling the history of psychiatry. This may seem like a radical approach for an institution funded by mental health organizations and headed by a board of psychiatrists, but the Netherlands was a location where social psychiatry was strong in the 1920s and 1930s and after World War II. Arguably, the aims of reaching out to society and destigmatizing mental health would have been a familiar perspective for members of the early board, absorbed through professional training and practice.

That it was also very important that we present the stories of the people who were in those institutions in the new museum.
~ Floris Mulder

Stichting Pandora (the Pandora Foundation), the organization famous for their “Ooit een normaal means ontmoet?… En beviel ‘t?” (“Ever met a normal person?… Did you like it?”) poster of the early 1970s, was directly involved in early planning for the initial museum exhibit, insisting on a strong patient perspective and sometimes butting heads with representatives from the psych professions. Curator Floris Mulder told us that Pandora was an essential conduit to the voices of lived/living experience that spoke out in the first permanent exhibit alongside those of psychiatrists and others from the psych professions. At the time, making the new display an expression of both the history of psychiatry and mad people’s history was a radical move. An institutional commitment toward making public the stories of experts by experience – to use the Dutch term – and to destigmatize mental health differences, has remained central to the Museum’s mission. Hans Looijen came into the museum as the second director in 2008 bringing with him a family history of mental health difficulties. The board chair supported his mantra that, “openness is key.”

The Amsterdam exhibition design company of Kossmanndejong, founded in 1998 by architects Herman Kossmann and Mark de Jong, was an early and eager collaborator with curators at the new museum on the canal at Haarlem. Historians Floris Mulder, Gemma Blok, and Joost Vijselaar were content developers on a project that set out the history of psychiatry from the late Middle Ages to the late 20th century along the length of the Dolhuys’ main hall. Kossmanndejong’s design gave voice to former patients by making storytelling a central device for the entire exhibit: historic spaces and objects shared their stories with visitors. Using stethoscopes, visitors could listen to the stories of patients, nurses, families and psychiatrists. Creating encounters between visitors and museum content was a central aim. Looking into a distance, artist Vincent van Gogh pronounced, “Only when I stand at my easel do I feel alive.” Texts were written directly on and all over the walls of the historic building – including the cafeteria – and historical objects were presented as vessels holding tales from the past. Shut in a former isolation cell, visitors listened to audio describing how the space had been experienced by patients being punished.

Visual cues punctuated the storied display. Photos, portraits, and projections, both larger than life and diminutive, denoted personhood and with it joy, pride, pain, sadness, and worn resignation. A selection of the most telling historical artifacts were displayed, including iron manacles, tools of the occupational therapy- and the great somatic cures (ECT, insulin), and posters of Pandora and other radical groups from the seventies. Two additional rooms displayed the culture and world of patients, physicians and psychiatrists. Here, a set of cabinets provided explanatory notions of mental health causality across time and culture: the humoral theory, the biological model, the psychoanalytical paradigms, and spiritual explanations from the Islam to the Surinam Winti religion. Working with the project’s restoration architect, Kossmanndejong purposefully left visible the building’s blemishes, reasoning that, “psychiatry is about scars and imperfections.” Even the chairs in the display were built with one leg different from the others to convey a sense of personality and fragility, a motif noticed by Lieke Ketelaars when she visited the museum as a young design student. These methods of storytelling through exhibit design became foundational for Kossmanndejong’s future practice.

My role in this museum is to take groups through and not just tell them about the objects but speak with them about mental health.
~ Marianne de Bruin

Launched in 2005, the Dolhuys exhibit was a success. It received coverage in Dutch architectural, design, and museum journals, won the 2005 De Nederlandse Designprijzen, and an honourable mention at the 2007 European Museum Awards as one of the continent’s most innovative museums. Through sharing curatorial authority with members of Pandora, it seemed that the exhibit was a forum where a diversity of mental health narratives fostered empathy toward mentally diverse people. Research demonstrates that an emotionally charged personal mental health story is a powerful change agent. Hearing directly from an expert by experience not only makes us feel like we understand survivors better, but it also fosters a broader concern for others struggling with similar issues and motivates us to become change agents.

Other developments continued apace at the museum. A robust group of volunteers – some with lived/living experience of mental health assisted at the front desk, served as tour guides, did administrative work, and helped in the café. In 2009 the incoming director Hans Looijen spearheaded the creation of “de Bovenkamer” (The Upper Room) with a mandate that the museum create youth-centred programming for a newly self-identified visitor clientele. Two years later Looijen took the question to the board: did they wish to continue catering to the mental health community or go for maximum public impact? They chose the latter.

Yet over the next decade the future of the 2005 display became less certain. Visitor research showed that, contrary to the aims of the original board members and staff to destigmatise mental difference, the exhibit was in fact further alienating visitors new to the topic from people with lived experience of mental health differences. Some who viewed the exhibit found it depressing and there were reports that its content was frightening for children and associated with highly negative topics like torture. A radical openness to the rich and difficult past and present of psychiatry and madness no longer seemed to be the way forward. In 2014 the facility was given the “more inviting” name of Museum van de Geest (Museum of the Mind) and a reconceptualization of the permanent exhibit began alongside a refurbishment of its important historic quarters.


Marianne de Bruin Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Lieke Ketelaars Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Hans Looijen Interview, Haarlem, 23 November 2022.
Floris Mulder Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Joost Vijselaar Interview, Haarlem, 17 November 2022.


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