Katy Whitaker's Asylum Zine is inspired by a pair of 18th-century spectacles in the Whipple Museum of the History of Science and the questions they raise around definitions of disability, how these change over time, and who gets to decide who is disabled and who not.

The zine, or mini magazine, is comprised of layers of a historical Ordnance Survey, text from Historic England's National Heritage List for England (seemingly "objective" and "official" records) and contrasts two institutions for patients with mental ill-health: one, York Asylum, with a terrible reputation, and the second, The Retreat, considered a model for the good treatment of patients.

Asylum Zine

Black and white sheet which may be folded into a small booklet. The image collages extracts from historical Ordnance Survey maps with strips of text, pasted on top.

Although viewed here as a flat sheet, the zine folds into a small, eight-page booklet. Museum Remix Guest Curator Lucian Stephenson demonstrates:

The object that inspired the artwork: 18th century spectacles

A spectacles case and spectacles are laid side by side against a back background. On the left, the spectacles case is droplet shaped and covered with lustrous green fishskin. It’s open to reveal a wooden interior, revealing that it is hinged on one side. On the right, the spectacles are laid on their side. They have round, gold-rimmed lenses, and the bridge is hinged.

These gold-rimmed spectacles in the Whipple Museum of the History of Science are hinged at the bridge so they may be folded neatly away into their fishskin case. They date from around 1750 to 1800, before attitudes towards disability hardened around whether a person was able to work.

Katy says,

"I cast my mind to the ways that mental health has been 'seen'. The institutionalisation of people with poor mental health, the institutions into which people were placed; and how that institutionalisation was and is perpetuated in other 'official' arenas. ...

The visual and textual language used on the old maps and in the more recent NHLE text descriptions of buildings is part of the definition-making around mental health. While apparently simply providing factual information about the institutions, the language used perpetuates stigma about poor mental health, like repeating the word 'insane' and talking about the perceived violence of patients."

This artwork is part of the Museum Remix: Unheard project, and is featured in the Museum Remix: Woven Histories digital exhibition.