Asylum Geographies: Introducing a new social science blog by Kim Ross

Asylums possess fascinating geographies, with distinctive urban, local, regional, and environmental connections, with the sites and architecture of the former institutions carefully chosen by a variety of people, for very specific reasons. The blog Asylum Geographies explores these geographies and institutions in detail, from the macro to the micro scale, and across different time periods.

Hello, my name is Kim Ross, and I am a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, working with both the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences and the History of Medicine department. My research looks into the emergence and development of the ‘Asylum Age’ in nineteenth century Scotland. My thesis briefly details the establishment of the charitable Royal Asylums, and the Lunacy (Scotland) Act of 1857, but the main focus will be centred on the construction of the state-run District Asylums; Scotland’s “forgotten” asylums, 21 of which were constructed between 1857-1913. Furthermore, I will also be inquiring in to what to do with these ‘difficult’ buildings in an era of deinstitutionalisation.  I have recently started a blog to explore some of my archival research thoughts and findings, as well as sharing some of my site-visit meanderings. Posts will explore varying aspects of my research, mostly through a geographical lens.

The predominant line of thought emerging in the nineteenth century was of a treatment that should remove those people regarded as mentally ill from the stress of community and family life – freeing the mind from, in particular, the city and factory – by moving them to the isolated, ‘idyllic’, ‘natural’, rural setting. This brought together ‘moral’, medical and hygienic dimensions – the ‘medico-moral’ discourse – ultimately outlining the institutional geography by having a profound influence on asylum location and design. Approaching the archive from a specifically geographical Foucauldian perspective, the ideal Scottish ‘blueprint’ for district asylum location and architecture is uncovered and reconstructed by ‘picking out’ the macro and micro-geographies discussed within official documentation, then applying this model to the District Asylums to see what extent the ‘ideal’ was reached, but also to see how it was moulded and developed over the decades. As asylum location and architecture was a relatively novel concern, questions of siting and design became more pertinent, and indeed central, in institutional planning during the years after the mid-century lunacy reforms. ‘Fitting the building to its purposes’ involved a variety of structural innovations, stylistic refinements and new ways of organizing the “space reserved by society for insanity” (Foucault, 1965:251).

I think that this research may be of interest to those working within the Medical Humanities, as the archival texts explored within the blog were functional, they ‘did’ things, they made things happen, they ‘authored’ changes in the asylum system from mid-nineteenth century Scotland forward, and thus impacted on the lives of all the patients and staff who found themselves living in these institutions. The likes of the Scottish Commissioners in Lunacy effectively “produced” real asylum geographies from their texts. Crucially, it is only very recently that many of these nineteenth century ‘products’ have finally been closed: their locations and architecture have been the backdrop to thousands of patients lives, for better or worse. What the Commissioners wrote in their ‘blueprint’, to a considerable extent then transferred into ‘bricks-and-mortar’, is hence of inestimable importance.

It’s a pleasure to introduce this blog to the Medical Humanities community. I hope that some may find it interesting, and also that it might spark thoughts, debates and discussions around an area of research that is inherently inter-disciplinary yet to-date relatively under-studied. To find out more, please visit Asylum Geographies.

About Centre for Medical Humanities

Centre for Medical Humanities
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