The History of Psychiatry

The current museum collection started out with a small ‘key’ collection of old objects that were preserved inside the walls of the Guislain Hospital and were put on display for certain special occasions. Particularly the late 18th/ early 19th century collection of instruments of coercion used in the Ghent madhouse for men was an eye catcher. In the early 1980s, Bro. René Stockman, PhD, the museum’s current curator and the Superior General of the Brothers of Charity, was the Dr. Guislain Psychiatric Centre’s general director. He saw great value in both the building and in the old objects that were kept there. With the Museum Dr. Guislain, he wanted to respond to the great ignorance as well as the curiosity about the history of mental health care in general and psychiatry in particular.



Initially, the museum’s collection policy consisted in conducting research and in registering all the old objects within the institution itself. After all, ‘The Guislain Hospice’ was the first insane asylum in Belgium, which has served as such uninterruptedly since its inauguration in 1857. Obviously, it was worthwhile to search the extensive attics, cellars, and storage rooms of the institution. As from its inauguration, the museum has also pursued an active acquisition policy. The majority of the pieces in the collection belong to the museum because they were either purchased, donated or bequeathed to the museum. Only a small part of the collection consists of long-term or temporary loans.

The collection on the history of psychiatry is rather heterogeneous. It is made up of objects that belong to the pre-psychiatric period, to the pre-Freudian humanities period, and to the period of biologically-oriented psychiatry. Social and therapeutic facilities, asylums, and psychiatric hospitals were subject to constant changes, as well. The same is true for all legislation regarding psychiatry. From the period of institutional psychiatry alone, during the 1920s and 1930s, when insane asylums were sealed off from the outside world and were practically self-sufficient, the museum has a vast amount of potential exhibition objects.


The history

The collection is divided into sub-sections. The prehistory section deals with the period that stretches from the Antiquity to the Middle Ages, from magic to systematised medical views, and, as far as madness is concerned, the Jewish-Christian views on derangement. During the Middle Ages, several views on illness and health were popular at the same time. Lunatics were locked up in madhouses, regarded as people who were possessed by some evil spirit or the devil himself or persecuted as witches. However, here and there, they were welcomed more charitably, like in Geel, where the cult of St Dymphna had led to the insane being taken in by the local people who took care of them.

The second part of the exhibition shows the development of a modern, scientifically-founded psychiatry and of modern institutions. Under the influence of the Age of Enlightenment, several individuals came forward to plead for a more humane and medically sound approach to the mentally ill in Europe. Foundations were laid for a more modern-style psychiatric hospital. The first laws related to insanity were voted. The city of Ghent in Belgium, the birthplace of Dr. Joseph Guislain who introduced modern psychiatry in our parts, was actually the cradle of modern-day care of mental patients. The original equipment that was used to restrain patients at the old Ghent madhouse illustrates the way in which patients were treated before. However, some of the first therapies that were used by psychiatrists may also appear somewhat bizarre, such as cold plunge therapy and rotation therapy.

The third part of the permanent collection highlights the rise of the biologically-oriented approach to psychiatry, developed by such pioneers as Kraepelin and Bleuler, with therapies that sometimes had a significant impact on the patient’s body and consciousness. Psychiatric institutions, which started to flourish, would house ever bigger populations but were shut off from the outside world. The world of the mentally ill disappeared out of the sphere of experience of the rest of society. In Germany, that led to the fulfilment of one of the conditions for the elimination of all allegedly unworthy humans, the so-called silent Holocaust. But in the rest of the (medical) world too, a very repressive image of mankind became popular.

As from the 1960s, closed-off psychiatric institutions became the subject of fierce criticism ever more frequently. The emancipation movements exerted their influence even behind the walls of the institutions. Patients and their relatives insisted on more rights. In the long term, it led to new legislation in the whole of Europe and a gradual dismantlement of the old institutions. More attention was now paid to social reintegration of people who suffered from a mental illness. For the first time in years, ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ stood face to face. It is an uphill struggle to find new ways of living together.

Today, reintegration is key in the field of psychiatry, with an emphasis on ambulatory care and mobile units. In case of hospitalisation, the patient needs to keep in touch with his surroundings outside of the hospital as much as possible so as to return to society as quickly as possible.



An important part of the collection on the history of psychiatry is the large photo collection. That is not a coincidence. There is something between psychiatry and photography. Already in 1850, Scottish ‘psychiatrist’ Dr Diamond had decided to no longer illustrate his manuals with engravings but rather with photographs. According to him, photographs had an added value because they showed the mentally ill in a more objective fashion. He claimed that photography might even help to determine real ‘types’ of psychiatric disorders.

The first series of photographs of the ‘Guislain Hospice’ date back to 1860. A second series is dated 1887. The model institution tried to promote itself to the outside world by means of photographs. In 1930, an interesting series of photographs was made in order to illustrate life and work in a psychiatric institution. The museum set itself the task of carrying on that tradition and invited a few Belgian top photographers, including Stephan Vanfleteren, Lieve Blancquaert, and Michiel Hendryckx, to capture life at a psychiatric institution. The collection does not just feature historical series, it also boasts work by contemporary photographers, who reflect on illness and health, on normal and abnormal.