Asylum 26.3 includes a special feature onWhittingham Lives, an arts and heritage project honouring the histories of the people who lived and worked at Whittingham Asylum in Preston. The feature includes several reflections and outcomes from the project. The first of these outlines the Whittingham Lives project.
In 2014 the Whittingham Lives Association, a not-for-profit partnership, was setup to devise and deliver a two-year arts and heritage project – Whittingham Lives. Its aims were to preserve the physical archives and records of Whittingham Asylum and make them more accessible, and to increase awareness and understanding about the history of the asylum and mental health care. By learning from the past, we hoped to think critically about the present and imagine better futures. Funding in cash and kind was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England, University of Central Lancashire, UNISON, local charities, Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, Friends of Lancashire Archives and public donations. We also connected with international mental health history initiatives such as the fantastic Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto, Whitchurch Hospital, and Change Minds.
The project engaged the wider community of Preston, bringing together archivists and museum curators, social historians, local history groups, medical humanities and other scholars, NHS staff and service users ‒ past and present ‒ and their friends and families, as well as artists, writers and musicians. The stories of individuals, drawn from the historic reception orders and the poignant photographs, vividly brought the asylum past to life. They inspired creative responses, reminiscences, the revelation of personal experiences, and social, cultural and historical observations about Whittingham. The sense of Whittingham as a place was also important throughout the project, with events such as the premier of our play, Whittingham 1918, being held in the former staff club, connecting people with the location and atmosphere of the asylum.
Creative writing and multiple works of art in different media were displayed in the Whittingham Lives: Hidden Histories – Alternative Futures exhibition in 2018. at the Harris in Preston, alongside paintings and drawings of musician and artist, Kevin Coyne, who had worked at Whittingham and received treatment for his own mental distress. Music featured throughout the project, just as it had in the life of the asylum, with live performances of Gesualdo and Ivor Gurney at the launch, a creative project: Asylum Songs and Lyrics, a public singing day and the commission of War Embers which set Gurney’s poetry in a new choral work by Sasha-Johnson Manning, premiered at the Royal Northern College of Music.
Staff and service users at Guild Lodge, a secure mental health unit which still exists on the site of the asylum, took part in creative writing and visual arts and drama workshops. Their work was exhibited and published. Public events were inclusive and not specifically targeted at people identified as service users or carers.
By bringing together diverse partner organisations, the project enabled new thinking to emerge. For example, Lancashire Care NHS Trust are supporting developments of the art and heritage activities to complement the establishment of a recovery college. The support of the trade union, Unison, is enabling novel thinking about the implications of community-union organising in the field of mental health, and what such alliances mean in a context where workers’ interests have not always coincided with service users’ wishes and demands for alternative services. Reaching the public with sophisticated hands-on creative workshops, performances and exhibitions has, we hope, engendered deeper, critical reflections upon mental health in society and what our response should be to mental distress in all its forms.
The project’s social media output can be found on twitter: @WhittinghamLA and website: www.whittinghamlives.org.uk
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