The records and stories featured in our recent exhibition “Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland” are now available to view online  for the first time.

Here Professor Rab Houston, who worked with National Records of Scotland to create and curate this exhibition, explains what first interested him in the project and how he was able to bring these voices from the past to a national and global audience.

Back in 2014 I started a project called ‘Promoting Mental Health through the Lessons of History’. Research funding for universities has since the 2000s been increasingly focused on ‘impact’: how the academic work we do in our so-called ‘ivory towers’ changes ‘the real world’. History is immensely important to understanding where we have been, who we are, and where we might go in the future. It makes a difference to our lives. But creating a direct and measurable impact is much harder for an historian (or any other arts subject) than it is in the natural or even social sciences.

Luckily, I had for 20 years been working on the history of psychiatry and figured I could shape the books and articles I had written into providing context for modern mental health, aiming at medical professionals, sufferers from mental illness (one in four of us will experience it at some stage in our lives), the general public, and policy makers. I looked for a low-cost way to reach out and alighted on podcasts about the history of psychiatry and its present day practice. There are now four series and the number of podcasts has swollen to well over 80. All are free to listen or download using WordPress or iTunes.

Because I had published on eighteenth and nineteenth century physiognomy (the ‘science’ of reading faces to determine character and intellectual ability) I worked with a graduate student and Dundee University archives on a visual way of communicating my project. ‘Face to Face: Stories from the Asylum’ used photographs and life histories of patients at Dundee Lunatic Asylum, to explore the experience of mental disorder and how it was understood more than a century ago.

Around this time, my university’s public engagement officer gave me the chance to contribute to her Wellcome project ‘Cell Block Science’, using ‘Face to Face’ as a core resource. At a talk I gave to prison learners at HMP Barlinnie back in 2018, an appreciative gentleman came to me at the end and said: ‘That was great prof … but what we’d really like to know about is criminals’.

‘Prisoners or Patients?’ and National Records of Scotland

I was a bit deflated at first, but this quickly turned into a lightbulb moment because I knew that Perth Prison, Scotland’s oldest inhabited, kept similar files to Dundee. They were the record of the Criminal Lunatic Department, established in 1846 and not closed until 1958, when all remaining prisoner-patients were transferred to The State Hospital, Carstairs. They are in the care of the National Records of Scotland (NRS) in Edinburgh, a treasure trove of historic and contemporary records I had been mining ever since I began my PhD work back in 1977.

My efforts thus far had been successful, but in retrospect they were the work of an enthusiastic amateur when it came to engaging with the public. At this stage, I simply aimed to do another basic, low-cost exhibition that looked at the relationship between crime and mental disorders; the rate of insanity among prisoners was in Victorian times (and is today) far higher than in the general population. I wanted to start a debate about mental health in the justice system.

'Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland' Portrait Poster

I did my research for ‘Prisoners or Patients?’ at NRS and then wrote to them, explaining what I wanted to do with the material and asking permission to reproduce their holdings for educational purposes. They asked me to come in to talk about the project. I was a bit worried they might refuse, given the sensitivity the subject. What they said came as a complete surprise: why not work with us and put on your exhibition here during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

Working in partnership with NRS was a revelation. In exchange for my academic expertise, they dedicated funds and staff time to preparing and publicizing an exhibition which was more sophisticated and far more successful in generating impact than I could ever have managed on my own. The archive staff were efficient, patient, inventive, and highly professional, the communications team savvy about both audiences and media. NRS possess a level of expertise in many fields that I have seldom encountered in a career spanning more than 40 years. The end result for me was the highpoint of a project which I am sure has informed and I hope has made a real difference to understanding mental health past and present.

'Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland' exhibition site, front page. National Records of Scotland
‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’ exhibition site, front page. National Records of Scotland

For ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’ a mini-website was created and installed in the exhibition space. It featured information about additional prisoner-patients that were not included in the main display, including prisoner-patient profiles detailing their crime and treatment, and a curated selection of photographs from original records held in NRS.

Since the exhibition, this site has been updated to include audio excerpts of record transcriptions, read by students of the Acting for Stage & Screen course at Queen Margaret University; and a free-to-download portable version of the original Fringe Festival exhibition which can be printed for educational purposes.

This mini-site is now available on NRS’ website here.

Guest Writer

Professor Rab Houston

University of St Andrews

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