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The Representation of Mental Illness in Museums

In 2016 the Mental Health Foundation released a document titled Fundamental Facts about Mental Illness 2016, which stated that problems concerning mental health are one of the leading causes of disease burden in the world. This is backed up by the World Health Organization, which points out that this burden is only growing. With the current state of the world, it could become even more widespread. At this point, there are approximately 450 million people in the world affected by one mental illness or another.

The need to address this topic is becoming more and more relevant, especially because there is still a stigma against people who suffer from mental illnesses. This stigma is typically caused by society’s misunderstandings. Mental illness is considered as a sign of weakness, feeding into the idea that it is deliberate, and that these people should just “get it together”. This kind of perspective only makes the lives of the people who have to live with mental illness harder, even contributing to things like them not being able to get a job or find a place to live, not to mention the overwhelming lack of treatment. So it is important to actively fight against stigma.

When talking about the reduction of stigma, one of the methods that are usually employed is education, which can be used to separate the myths about people with mental illness from reality. Knowledge helps us develop empathy – by learning the experiences one goes through in that position, we can re-evaluate our own previous behaviours and beliefs, and make room to grow and develop.

There are many different ways to learn about such heavy topics, one of them being through museums. Cultural spaces such as museums provide not only entertainment, but also a space for free-choice learning and individual meaning-making. This means that the visitor is given the reigns on what they want to learn and, therefore, has a completely different experience, as opposed to the types of learning they come across at school, or university. This type of informal learning creates a space that is devoid of pressure and stress, giving people the opportunity to absorb the knowledge offered to them in an organic way. If these cultural spaces chose to explore the topic of mental illness, it could mean faster and more in-depth spread of awareness. In fact, some cultural spaces, such as museums, have already been developing programmes and exhibitions around this theme.

Museums and Mental Health Representation

Over the past few decades, museums have been changing their ways. From once being “white cubes” made for the elites, now they are striving towards social change, engaging with their audiences, and creating a welcoming space for everyone. While the topic of mental illness is still seen as somewhat taboo, there have still been exhibitions that have explored it and here are just a few examples.

In 2007, the Museum of Brisbane carried out an exhibition titled Remembering Goodna, where the museum chose to look at mental illness from a psychological and psychiatric point of view. This perspective is used by medical and psychiatric museums and includes the historical view of mental illness, concerning itself with the representation of what was happening in asylums and other similar institutions. They present mental illnesses in terms of how people suffering from them were treated in a place that was supposed to take care of them. Remembering Goodna took an approach to this subject that looked at first-hand accounts of people who were

working at the then titled “Goodna Hospital of the Insane”, and those who were admitted there. It lead to these people getting closure and spread the word about the horrible realities that patients had to go through.

Another noteworthy exhibition about mental illness – The Mechanics of Depression, carried out by the Hundred Years Gallery, in London, took a more artistic approach to the subject matter. It used the works of the artist Carlie Simpkin to show “the complex nature of the illness”, focusing on the feeling that one experiences when one has depression. With this exhibition, the aim was to bring to light what usually cannot be seen by the naked eye, and that is the inner workings of the mind, more specifically, of a mind experiencing depression.

Finally, in 2018-2019, the Van Gogh Museum had an exhibition called Van Gogh Dreams, where the museum took a very original approach to representing the life of the world famous artist Vincent van Gogh, who himself had a mental illness, that eventually led to him taking his own life. The educational department of the museum worked with a design company to make a sensory exhibition, representing the time Vincent spent in Arles. This was where he had a mental breakdown that resulted in him cutting off his ear. The museum chose to represent this breakdown, trying to show how Van Gogh felt while experiencing it, which resulted in a dark room with flashing red lights and shattered mirrors. While this method was slightly limited in its exploration of Van Gogh’s mental illness, the original approach shows the move towards talking about it – which is the most important part of all.

What next steps can museums take?

When it comes to different types of museums, there’s different things to consider, and multiple perspectives one can explore to develop projects about mental illnesses. They can even explore what other cultural organizations have been doing in this regard and take inspiration from them. There have been programmes such as the Human Library, which is a decades old project that gives the visitors an opportunity to have a conversation with people who have had different experiences in life. At this library event, you could talk to a refugee, a transgender person, someone with a mental illness, etc. This project not only helps reduce stigma, but also creates a space where we can freely ask questions, and be able to learn from people who have lived through these things and have first hand experience.

Education is key to reduce stigma against mental illness, and any other such topics. Museums, along with other cultural organizations, should strive to make their audiences more aware and more welcome. Each organization should explore ways to do this – by holding discussions or lectures, by listening to their visitor’s needs, by conducting research and figuring out what is the best way to approach this topic. Mental illness representation is essential in this stress-driven world where the threat of it is spreading, so we should not avoid talking about it but face it head-on.


  • • Ander, E.E., Tomson, L.J., Blair, K., Noble, G., Menon, U., Lanceley, A., Chatterjee, H.J. (2013). Using museum objects to improve wellbeing in mental health service users and neurological rehabilitation clients. The British Journal of Occupation Therapy. Vol. 76, no. 5, pp. 208-216
  • • Byrne P. (2000). Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Vol 6, pp. 65-72
  • • Corrigan P.W., River L.P., Lundin R.K., Penn D.L., Uphoff-Wasowski K., Campion J., et al. (2001). Three Strategies for Changing Attributions about Severe Mental Illness. Schizophrenia Bulletin. 27 (2), pp. 187-195
  • • Hogeschool van Amsterdam – Van Vliet H., Hallema G., Kuyper A., Schrandt B. (2019). Een onderzoek naar de belevingswaarde van Van Gogh Droomt [A study into the experience value of Van Gogh Dreams].
  • • Hundred Years Gallery (n.d.). Exhibition: ‘The Mechanics of Depression’ by Carlie Simpkin. Retrieved from:
  • • Mental Health Foundation (2016). Fundamental Facts about Mental Illness 2016. Retrieved from:
  • • Remembering Goodna (2007). Museum of Brisbane. Retrieved from:
  • • Rüsch N., Angermeyer M.C., and Corrigan P.W. (2005). Mental illness stigma: concepts, consequences, and initiatives to reduce stigma. European Psychiatry, 20, pp. 529-539
  • • Sandell, R. (2007). Museums, prejudice, and the reframing of difference. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
  • • Somers K., (2019). Human Library viert de diversiteit. Retrieved from:
  • • World Health Organization (2018). Mental Disorders. Retrieved from:

About the author – Elene Kadagidze

Elene Kadagidze is an up-and-coming museum professional and writer from Tbilisi, Georgia. Recently completing her Master’s in Arts and Heritage, her interests lie in making the museum a more inclusive space for everyone and maximizing it’s potential to educate people on important issues. She is currently residing in the Netherlands and is navigating the cultural sectors of the Netherlands and Belgium. Additionally, She is a co-host of an art history podcast called “Bet You Wish This Was an Art Podcast.”

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