Museum documents madness in Ghent

The Museum Dr Guislain in Belgium uses exhibitions and art collections to trace the medical and social treatments of mental illness through time.

From exorcism to shock therapy, the historical treatments of the mentally ill can often seem as crazy as the illnesses themselves.

Nowhere is this irony so well documented as at the Museum Dr Guislain in Ghent, Belgium, where exhibitions and art collections trace both the medical and social treatments of mental illness through time. The museum’s building itself lays claim to this history, having once been a working asylum envisioned by Dr Joseph Guislain.

Guislain was one of the first doctors to believe that insanity could be treated like any other disease, and drew up plans for the asylum in 1824. Though not constructed until 1857, the asylum represented a huge shift in how the mentally ill were treated. Instead of isolated, cold cells where the afflicted were commonly jailed, this new centre included peaceful inner courtyards, gardens and workshops for making shoes, clothes and other trades.

Today the museum pays tribute to the evolving art and science of psychiatry with exhibits that document early forms of treatments  – from skull trepanation, during which a patient’s skull would be bored open with flints or other primitive tools to allow the “evil spirit” to escape, to more modern-day medicinal treatments like lithium and antidepressants.

The museum also takes care to remind visitors that mental illness is far from a strictly medical condition, but one still informed by social and cultural attitudes of what is considered “normal”. To that end, the museum also displays an art collection which explores the concept of “outsider art”: works that exist beyond the boundaries of classic artistic traditions.

Admission costs six euros for an individual, but a guided tour for larger groups can be arranged for 60 euros. The museum opens from 9 am to 5 pm during the week, but only 1 pm to 5 pm on the weekend.  

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