A 10-minute tram ride out of Ghent takes you to the Museum Dr. Guislain, set in Belgium’s oldest psychiatric hospital.
The Guislain Hospice was built in 1857, Dr. Joseph Guislain’s idea, who represents the beginning of modern psychiatry in Belgium. Instead of locking people with mental illness up in the infamous madhouses, Guislain believed they should be treated humanely and with dignity. He designed the hospital to reflect this and thought the building itself could have a therapeutic effect – for this reason it was built just 2 stories high, and was set in the (then) peaceful countryside to evoke feelings of freedom and safety.
Even on a flat grey day it’s a beautiful place and feels like a retreat from the outside world.
The museum is split into a few different parts across the building, including two permanent collections about the history of mental health and several temporary exhibitions focussing on aspects of human emotions and conditions (there was a great one about shame when we went, unfortunately the others didn’t have English explanations but the staff are very knowledgeable and know a lot of languages!).
Upstairs there’s a more old-fashioned collection about the treatment of mental illness, right from prehistoric trepanned skulls and the exorcism of the devil, to the restraining equipment used in Ghent’s old madhouses. The weird and often disturbing ‘treatments’ used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are also included (one involved being kept in the bath for hours or even days). At the end there’s a very moving silent video showing early clips of patients.
Downstairs looks at twentieth-century experimental therapies including electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy, with hospital beds, old medical equipment and photographs demonstrating them. Photographs make up an important part of the museum – they were being taken at the hospital early on to show the outside world what was going on in Belgium’s first psychiatric institution. There’s also work from modern Belgian photographers reflecting on mental illness.
The 30th September 2015 marked 200 years since the mentally ill were released from being chained up in the basement of the Castle of Gerald the Devil in the centre of Ghent (if you go on a boat ride they show you the cells people would have been kept in next to the canal). As the museum travels through the history of mental illness it points out that today the emphasis is on reintegrating people back into society and the different ways they can be supported in this.
But, despite the chains thankfully having been long abandoned, the museum also addresses the stigma of mental illness that still exists today. Its collection of ‘outsider art’ (art brut) encourages you to reflect upon what we see as normal or abnormal states of mind, and the wobbly, ever-changing lines that divide Us from Them.
Opening times and prices
Open every day except Mondays, weekdays from 9am-5pm and weekends from 1pm-5pm. Entry is €8 for adults (discounts if you’re under 26). Alternatively we’d recommend buying a CityCard from Ghent’s tourist information centre, which gives you access to all of the city’s museums, free public transport and a boat ride – €30 for 48 hours or €35 for 72 hours.
The museum is still home to a school of psychiatric nursing.
How to get there
The museum is to the north of the city – the easiest way there is to get the no.1 tram and get off at Guislainstraat which stops right next to it.
Museum Dr. Guislain, Jozef Guislainstraat 43, 9000 Gent, Belgium