Silence is a cause of stigma. Does York need a museum dedicated to mental health? asks York Civic Trust’s ANDREW MORRISON


In the late 18th and 19th centuries more humane attitudes and practices towards the treatment of mental health were pioneered in York.

These advances primarily took place within the buildings and surrounding green spaces of the Retreat on Heslington Road, but also Bootham Park Hospital. Inspired by his Quaker faith William Tuke changed attitudes to mental health in this country.

When Tuke devised the Retreat in York, in response to the inhumane treatment and subsequent death of Hannah Mills at Bootham Hospital, he wanted to create somewhere different - a place on a hill with green space where gentle, kind social interaction in beautiful surroundings fostered a humane approach to mental health.

This was pioneering stuff, not just in Britain, but internationally too. When London’s Bethlam was being rebuilt in 1845, the Superintendent visited the Retreat and commented that ‘the best thing we have seen is something that we cannot take away with us to copy, and that is the atmosphere of your hospital’. There were qualities in the place itself that defined the success of services on offer.

Access to therapeutic mental health services is as important today as it was 200 years ago. Provision has changed away from hospitals to community delivery. Both the Retreat and Bootham Park are now to be converted to non-hospital uses - and so may be lost to any public discussion of York’s heritage and innovations in this field.

But should such historic places be used to inspire creative approaches and conversations about mental health as other cities are doing? In short, does York need a museum dedicated to mental health?

Wakefield has one - the Mental Health Museum. London has one at Bethlam - The Museum of the Mind. Bristol has one - the Glenside Hospital Museum. Leeds Museums have an online exhibition - Open Minds. All these museums and exhibitions recognise the impact York had on the development of therapeutic and moral treatment of mental health.

All these examples use their local history, buildings and collections to inform conversations about mental health. Wakefield’s Mental Health Museum and the Bethlam’s Museum of the Mind are based in NHS hospitals and are open to staff and service users as well as the public. Grayson Perry opened the Museum of the Mind saying it was ‘of vital importance and will create a legacy for the understanding of the mental health for years to come’.

Museums, heritage and cultural spaces can be neutral spaces for learning. A historical perspective from within a place where people were treated using historic collections and archives can be incredibly powerful in helping separate myths from reality and provide knowledge to remove stigma and create empathy.

While York’s role in mental health care provision over time is arguably one of the city’s strongest contributions to Western knowledge, would a physical museum celebrating this story be right for York? Or should energy and resources be put into exploring how York can embrace the thinking of William Tuke and use this as inspiration to help provide access to our mental health heritage in ways that do not need another museum in the city?

Do buildings and objects matter? Is it better to provide green spaces and opportunities for kind and social interaction than to worry about brick and mortar and housing physical objects in a single place?

Wakefield’s Mental Health Museum has not opened to the public throughout the pandemic and has instead taken its creative activities out into communities - in libraries, shopping centres and parks and has been highly successful in connecting with people in doing so. So, instead of a museum in York, should outdoor space within the Retreat and Bootham Park be the sites for exploring historic perspectives? Should historic artefacts be liberated from their traditional glass cases and instead be sent out into the community and accessed alongside the 21st century therapeutic services?

Given York’s historic role in pioneering mental health care, these are all questions that are at least worth discussing.