The Museum of the Mind is really taking you into the future, curating a part of the old story, but also inviting in new artists.
~ Jolien Posthumus

You can see the Museum of the Mind – a former leper house, asylum, and poor house – as you leave Haarlem train station, cross the canal, and turn the corner. This age-old site holds a complicated 700-year history of charitable care and forced confinement and is a living testament to shifting societal and civic needs, virtues, and prejudices. Before the nineteenth century, such Dutch municipal charitable institutions were overseen by a board of wealthy and worthy local citizens: male regents were responsible for financial matters while female regentesses saw to food and clothing for residents. The luxuriously appointed 1756 regent’s room is perfectly preserved at the museum, with original wallpaper and paneling painted by local artist Jan Augustini (1725-1773).

Cast out from the city’s walls in the late medieval period, people with leprosy lived in houses set around St. Jacob’s chapel, now the museum’s café. By the early fifteenth century a hospital hall for poor lepers and a house for wealthy elders had been constructed alongside the chapel, and the city was drawing revenue by selling public begging permits to lepers. In the mid-sixteenth century, with leprosy declining across Europe, a new wing was added for “dollen”, an archaic Dutch word that translates as mad in English. If deemed unruly or aggressive, these dollen were locked up in small cells surrounding the courtyard which can still be seen today.

I visited more than 45 institutions making an inventory of their archives, libraries, museum collections, their pictures, their movies, the furniture.
~ Joost Vijselaar

Europe’s asylums evolved in the first half of the nineteenth century with the development of psychiatry as a medical specialism and the introduction of moral treatment and other reforms in care for those deemed insane. In the Netherlands, the first “Krankzinnigenwet” or “Mad Law” was adopted in 1841, setting new humane and medical standards of care in institutions. Eight years later the Dolhuys at Haarlem closed its doors. Most of its residents were moved to the newly opened provincial asylum Meer en Berg, which became one of the model institutions for the moral therapy internationally. In the shape shifting fashion of Canadian institutions constructed to segregate marginalized populations, the former Dolhuys became a poor house and hospital (1856), a home for children in care (1927), a psychiatric crisis centre (1978), and finally a home for the elderly, closing for good in 1998.

The historical artefacts displayed at Haarlem are from the combined historical collections of the former psychiatric hospitals of North Holland, a prosperous region of the country and home to a network of psychiatric institutions – the Provincial Hospitals Santpoort (the formerhe Meer en Berg) and Duin en Bos (Castricum) , the Roman Catholic Willibordus Foundation and the Protestant Vogelenzang. When Dutch psychiatric historian Joost Vijselaar undertook a national inventory of psychiatric facilities in 1980 he unearthed a vast and varied psychiatric heritage across the country. Many of the objects he catalogued are now in the Museum of the Mind collection and a portion are included in the current permanent display.

This evolution of psychiatric collections is by no means unique to the Netherlands. In many countries, psychiatric nursing staff and psychiatrists took the lead as collectors and keepers of the material and visual culture of these vast and vanishing institutions. Canada has some small local institutional collections maintained by volunteers – in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and Hamilton, Ontario, for example – but many psychiatric collections have languished, with promising plans and important collections in storage or even left behind in sometimes depleted and abandoned facilities. There is currently no physical display space that presents a broad history of the Canadian asylum project and its links to medicine, migration, inequity, and colonialism. In the United States, the virtual National Museum of Mental Health Project, a non-profit “museum without walls” is currently under development. Traditional museum displays include regional exhibitions in Oregon, Missouri, and Wisconsin, but there is also an American mental health “museum” in Los Angeles, California with dubious connections with Scientology. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, noteworthy mad museums emerged, literally opening the doors of psychiatry’s past to the public. In addition to the Dolhuys at Haarlem, these include Museum Dr Guislain (Belgium), Museo Laboratorio della Mente (Italy), Bethlem (England) and MuSeele (Germany).

As you move through the exhibition, you will get bits of history, bits of personal story, bits of art, they are intertwined.
~ Lieke Ketelaars

The first historical artefact that we encountered at the museum was the building itself, a rambling institutional cluster of small nocks, vaulted chambers, courtyards, outbuildings, long corridors, the regents’ room, and the former chapel. As we threaded our way through the labyrinth of smaller exhibit spaces that made up the former Dolhuys, we encountered personal stories, questionnaires, and art. The audio guide takes the character of the building itself, providing glimpses into the building’s complex history of containment and care.

For two scholars immersed in mental health history it was not difficult to imagine the fearful arrival of a dollen in the 16th century, perhaps moved by voices only they could hear or suffering from profound concerns. Dolhuys might have seemed a jail or refuge, but with certainty entry there signalled an exodus from Haarlen’s civic community and a new identity for the resident. If they had been entering the former madhouse of Den Bosch in the latter part of the century, the dollen would have passed under the new gable stone now displayed in a gallery at the museum, a chilling piece of masonry depicting madmen in their cells experiencing various states of anguish.

We searched the historical gallery of the exhibit for artefacts representing the thematic trinity that Dutch historian Joost Vijselaar believes encapsulates the tragedy and drama of psychiatry across the ages: isolation, therapeutic possibility, and patient empowerment. First, we found a mid-century electroshock machine and a bath constructed to restrain patients, both items underscoring the inhumanity of setting suffering people apart and taking away their fundamental rights. Next, an elegant 1960s wall clock with the maxim, “Time will heal,” and a beautiful minimalist post-World War II sculpture of nurse and patient titled “Care and Nursing,” alluded to therapeutic milieus in psychiatric spaces that Hans Looijen had told us about. Moving to the third wall we encountered a bright graphic blast of mad pride and anti-psychiatry culture from the 1970s and 80s, bringing to mind the radical patient-led challenges to psychiatry that accompanied deinstitutionalization in the Netherlands and Canada.

Museum displays of objects relating to psychiatry’s past are controversial. Some critics maintain that psychiatric collections perpetuate a misplaced narrative of their history as a march to enlightenment. Each of the Euro-UK museums of psychiatry employs a blend of art, history, and storytelling to address this issue. At Beligium’s Guislain museum, an entire section is devoted to power in psychiatric care. Italy’s Museo Laboratorio della Mente includes a reconstruction of conditions in a closed institution while Germany’s MuSeele focusses on “the soul,” ignoring the subject of pathology. The museum in England’s notorious former Bethlem asylum employs elements of a critical mad history approach. Yet experts with experience continue to argue that these collections are an appropriation of their past. English activist/scholar Peter Beresford insists that a survivor-controlled museum is the answer. At Haarlem, such concerns were addressed in the 2005 permanent exhibit by engaging the Dutch patient rights foundation Pandora to help find stories that spoke back to the history of psychiatry, a sometimes tense process that involved heated conversations between former patients and the museum’s founders. In the 2020 exhibit, artefacts from psychiatry’s past are presented alongside a Tree of Life from Borneo and a statue of Mama Aïsha from Winti, the Afro-Surinamese belief system, contextualizing and complicating psychiatry’s historical dominance in the culturally diverse world of the Netherlands today.

That historical dimension is especially interesting if used as a mirror to reflect, let’s say, ideas we have in this day and age back at us.
~ Floris Mulder

The current permanent exhibit has its own history. When Hans Looijen arrived in 2008 to take over the position of director, he found the museum’s history collection clustered in the main hall with a narrative that ended in the 1990s, “and that’s where the museum stopped, period.” Floris Mulder regards the path that the museum took over its first fifteen years as a process of finding an identity and a mission. The first exhibit was a display of the history of psychiatry informed by the perspectives of people accessing these services. In the 2020 exhibit artefacts from the museum’s collection are placed alongside contemporary art and objects from other cultures to provoke public discussion of the stigmas associated with mental diversity. Individuals with lived/living experience provided feedback on both exhibits, but the latter iteration they were giving input on an exhibit where the past was only one of several moving parts. Advising on visitor accessibility, they recommended that the museum limit the amount of text on the identification labels placed near each item on display and avoid complex words and concepts in item descriptions.

Some argue that in our volatile post-pandemic world museums have a civic duty to demonstrate nuance and complexity in their presentations. The Museum of the Mind’s new exhibit leans toward this role by using history as a prompt for reflection. Visitors at ease with aural learning can use the audio guide to learn about the artefacts and consider how dilemmas faced by people in the past remain relevant today. Floris Mulder shared with us the illustration of a regulation patient’s coat from the 1930s, the inside adorned with exquisitely embroidered personal motifs by the woman who wore it, as “a metaphor for a much broader existential question of ‘Who am I?’” The audio guide’s interpretations of the 1949 nurse and patient statue and the electroshock machine lack Mulder’s nuance. The former is presented as a bid to bring back an emphasis on care in psychiatry while the latter is described as “difficult to look at” and of perhaps ineffective. The audio guide analysis of patient organization Pandora, however, zeros in on key themes of oppression, empowerment, and identity – useful ideas for people encountering the current mental health system. Does the exhibit allow us to hear “madness and psychiatry talking” about mental diversity and care, as prescribed by historians Roy Porter and Catherine Coleborne? Yes and no.

At the Museum of the Mind history gives the space a gravitas and imparts a significance to this ancient edifice. Yet at the same time, history is not analysed or explored for its own sake, but used instrumentally, functioning as a source of metaphors and a carrier of stories. In this sense, the museum could be said to display a four-dimensional kind of diversity: the three dimensions of physical space represented by the inclusion of objects from varying geographical locations and cultures, and the fourth dimension of time as showcased through historical objects and the notion of a better health future.


Lieke Ketelaars Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Hans Looijen Interview, Haarlem, 23 November 2022.
Floris Mulder interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Jolien Posthumus Interview, Haarlem, 17 November 2022.
Joost Vijselaar Interview, Haarlem, 17 November 2022.


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