Reconstructing the history of mental illness at Museo Laboratorio della Mente
If you visit the Museo Laboratorio della Mente in Rome expecting a typical museum, you’ll be disappointed. The museum is housed in the northern part of the Italian capital, in a neighborhood called Monte Mario, in a former psychiatric hospital (Manicomio) called Santa Maria della Pietà. The whole complex is huge and is spread over a number of different buildings: some of these house psychiatric and administrative services, some are empty and one is occupied by the museum. Everything is surrounded by a garden, where people run and play sport. It’s hard to imagine that until only thirty-five years ago the same buildings housed an institution that tried to do exactly the opposite to the present museum: to conceal something, mental illness, that was considered potentially dangerous to society.
In Italy the law that changed the history of mental institutions (legge 180) was approved in 1978 and offered the chance to change the situation. The law said that the construction of new mental institutions on Italian soil would be forbidden from that point onwards, and that the existing institutions had to be gradually closed. The law is also popularly known as legge Basaglia: Franco Basaglia (1924-1989) was one of the most influential Italian psychiatrists in the ’60s and ’70s and with other young psychiatrists was able to raise public awareness of the existence of these mental institutions and the way in which people were treated. The challenge to the existing situation was made “visible” in 1961 in the mental institution of Gorizia, in north-eastern Italy. Basaglia became the director of the institution and with the help of his collaborators started to “open” the structure, removing all the typical features of such a place, including traditional treatments such as electroshock treatment and insulin shock therapy, and ultimately shutting down the institution itself. Despite the strong resistance of traditional psychiatry Basaglia’s idea succeeded in gaining momentum, culminating in 1978 with the issuing of the law. This didn’t solve the problem, however, and a long campaign was necessary in order to close the existing mental institutions. On the other hand, the six Italian judiciary psychiatric hospitals (ospedale psichiatrico giudiziario, OPG) were closed only this year, on the 1st of April.
The museum was opened in 2000 and doesn’t pretend to reconstruct the whole history of the institution or of mental illness in Italy, but tries instead to involve the visitor in a very particular way.
The exhibition is divided into seven areas; the first four require the direct participation of the visitor. One of the key slogans of the museum is that “up close, no one is normal” (da vicino nessuno è normale) and the second room is designed to demonstrate this. The visitor arrives in a space called the Ames room built in order to provoke visual illusions. In a following room, visitors can sit on a chair near a blackboard and a photo camera takes their photo: every new patient of the Santa Maria della Pietà had to pass through a similar procedure on the first day, and their name was written on the blackboard. After the photo the visitor can sit on another chair nearby, where his or her photo appears mixed with the photos of other visitors and former patients: some of them contain oral testimony that can be heard. The animation is activated only if the visitor reproduces the oscillatory movement typical of many patients.
There are no typical information panels to be found; instead, videos and audio are widely used throughout the museum. This makes everything more pleasant but if the museum is crowded could also represent a problem, because some of the rooms are close together and the different audios could overlap.
The central room of the museum is divided into two parts by a barrier that reproduces part of the graffiti carved by the patient Oreste Fernando Nannetti on a wall in the psychiatric hospital of Volterra, in Tuscany. A video narrates Nannetti’s story as well as the story of another patient of Santa Maria della Pietà, Gianfranco Baieri, whose paintings hang on the wall. The following section reconstructs some of the key areas of the psychiatric hospital: the doctor’s office; the room in which the patients left their belongings when they entered the institution; the restraint room; as well as the pharmacy. Another room reconstructs a part of the canteen, and on one of the tables it is possible to access other multimedia content such as interviews with former hospital workers. There’s no fixed path and the visitor can follow his or her curiosity, choosing based on the objects projected on the table, starting with these three: the rules of the hospital; a copy of a medical record; and the book of deliveries.
On another table the visitor can see the objects that were used to eat: a metal plate, a metal glass, a metal pitcher and a metal spoon. Neither forks nor knives were allowed because they were thought to be dangerous, and another video presents the story of patient Lia Traverso’s hunger strike in protest of this, dramatised by the actress Carlotta Pirano. The last part of the museum, on the other side of Nannetti’s wall, allows the visitor to explore the history of the closure of the hospital through a series of short videos.
Another building of the former hospital houses the archive of Santa Maria della Pietà and of other institutions in Rome (the full list is available in English on the website) as well as the 9000 volume-rich Alberto Cencelli library.
The museum also houses an audiovisual archive containing 62 interviews with, for example, former patients, hospital workers and policy makers.
It is also possible at the moment to see another exhibition, run, like the museum, by the group Studio Azzurro, that focuses on the experience of mental illness. As in the museum, the narration is not sequential and is based on the personal experiences of patients and staff.
Additional information can be found at:
Museo Laboratorio della Mente
Piazza Santa Maria della Pietà, 5
00135 Pavillion 6