Psychiatry and the Arts in Historical Perspective

Rosemary Golding discusses the context behind setting up the Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain (PAN) Network and their work up to date.

The role of the arts in mental health and psychiatric care has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. From the establishment of formal arts therapies in the second half of the twentieth century to the development of social prescribing (where doctors prescribe activities, including those that are arts based) in the twenty-first, the arts are now widely seen as an effective – and efficient – means of achieving and retaining good mental health. At the same time, numerous scientific and academic studies seek to understand in more detail the effect of artistic exposure, engagement and participation on the human brain and body (see, for example, Dow et al, 2023; Viola et al, 2023; Fancourt and Finn, 2019). Why is it that the arts can affect us so deeply, and how does this differ from individual to individual? How can we leverage this in successful ways for personal wellbeing, medical treatment, and mental health?

Most of these questions were far from my mind when I embarked on a programme to investigate the role music played in nineteenth-century psychiatry. My own interest arrived by accident: whilst researching adverts for church and chapel organists in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, I came across a couple of adverts asking for organists to play in lunatic asylums. I’d never given the nineteenth-century treatment of mental health a second thought, much less considered the day-to-day running of asylums and their musical soundscape. Nevertheless, the new research project, which grew from a couple of visits to archives to a decade’s exploration of bands, choirs, theories and discourses around music and its impact, has been a fascinating opportunity to explore a hidden world.

My book on music in the English lunatic asylums (Golding, 2021), captures much of this research via a discussion of key themes and case studies. I show that music was widely used as one of the most efficient means of occupying and amusing patients in often-difficult circumstances, acting in important social and cultural ways in institutions while catering for different classes of patients. Music was more frequently associated with offsetting boredom and monotony than the direct therapeutic purpose we see in modern day music therapy.  Nevertheless, towards the end of the century it became an important tool in developments within psychiatric understanding. My research continues with a particular interest in the musical world of the pioneering Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries, Scotland.

Mentally ill patients dancing at a ball at Somerset County Asylum. Process print after a lithograph by K. Drake, ca. 1850/1855. Source: Wellcome Collection.
Mentally ill patients dancing at a ball at Somerset County Asylum. Process print after a lithograph by K. Drake, ca. 1850/1855. Source: Wellcome Collection.

Throughout my research, I was acutely aware that music was but one of a range of artistic endeavours utilised by asylum managers to offer occupation and a means of expression to asylum patients. Other scholars were investigating similar activities in the visual arts, theatre and literature; indeed, my work on music fitted into a much broader picture of ideas about creativity, patient life and the asylum as a microcosm of societal practices and values.

In response to this broader scholarly context, and in collaboration with Susan Hogan of Derby University, I set up the Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain. The first aim was to draw together scholars working in different disciplines yet with overlapping interests and concerns. The second aim was prompted by the changing nature of academic work and its associated pressures. As well as being fascinated by my research findings, colleagues in music had also been convinced of its potential for impact. However, despite strong interest in history among health professionals (the Royal College of Psychiatrists has a thriving History of Psychiatry Special Interest Group), I was making little headway in finding opportunities to engage with practitioners to create meaningful engagement and impact.

The Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain Network brings together academics working across disciplines within this historical framework, and seeks to explore dialogue with practitioners in the health, creative and heritage sectors.

The first symposium (June 2023)

The group met initially at the Crichton campus just outside Dumfries on a beautifully warm June day in 2023, armed with presentations and a shared experience of the Crichton archives. One of the joys of visiting the campus is that it is beautifully situated, the original 1830s buildings still largely intact (though closed, hopefully to be renovated soon). It’s easy to see why this location, with its views and healthful abundance of fresh air, was considered of benefit to patients suffering from the wide range of conditions that could lead to life in a Victorian asylum.

Delegates at the first PAN symposium touring the Crichton campus. Photo: Rosemary Golding

My own research on the Crichton has shown that music was adopted in the early 1840s as an effective means of reaching many patients, with the sounds of marching bands in the grounds filtering through open windows to even the most-resolutely bed-bound. Others have shown the importance of patient involvement in artwork (Hogan, 2001). Maureen Park’s ground-breaking study of patient involvement in art under Medical Superintendent (the professional overseeing the asylum’s day-to-day activities and medical treatment) W.A.F. Browne, draws on the rich collection of patient art still held in the archives (Park, 2010).

Our first symposium drew on research looking into the use of the arts in nineteenth-century asylums. In addition to Maureen’s fascinating presentation on new perspectives on patient artwork, Ute Oswald gave us a thought-provoking introduction to some key themes and considerations for studying nineteenth-century asylum life: the balance between using our position as historians to give a platform for patient stories and voices, and the need to respect patient dignity and privacy. Jessica Campbell treated us to an incisive interpretation of the role of fancy dress, including the ways in which social markers and status were preserved through strict codes of costume; Mila Daskalova shared detailed examples of the ways in which patients were involved in printing and the production of magazines; and Laura Blair examined records of patient reading and libraries, demonstrating the importance of reading for patient agency.

The papers highlighted some common themes in our research. In many cases the arts were used to combat monotony and boredom, and to engage patients at times or in circumstances when employment was impossible or inappropriate. The arts offered an interesting perspective on the tensions between patient agency, and the need for order and control within the institution – and wider society. Much of the time, artistic endeavour was carefully situated between patient imagination and societal conventions.

The arts also played important roles in representing asylums to the wider world through theatrical and musical performances and fetes open to the public, forming a part of rehabilitation as well as contributing to the formation of self-contained communities. The event was enriched enormously by our ability to visit the Crichton archives, by a performance of songs from ‘Up the Middle Road’, a community oral history project which drew on memories of the former asylum, and a wonderful tour of the Crichton site by Heritage Policy and Projects Officer Valentina Bold.

The second symposium (October 2023)

Our second symposium, held online, offered another set of fascinating papers, perspectives, and challenges. Kevin Jones’s opening paper examined the ways insanity was categorised during the nineteenth century, and their intersection with portrayals of mental illness in contemporary fiction. Mila Daskalova considered the relationship between genius and madness in the poetry published in nineteenth-century asylum periodicals, while Uta Oswald drew on mid-nineteenth century sources to pose key questions about the nature of art, beauty, morality and wellbeing in the context of Victorian society. Our final speaker, Cheryl McGeachan, used both the art and the material culture of the asylum as a lens for examining ideas of value, narrative and interpretation, particularly making a case for the marginalised historical voice.

We also began gaining valuable insights into the perspectives of those with lived experience of mental health conditions, and how historical work can give voice and value to current concerns and struggles. The symposium was attended by two artists from Outside In, an organisation offering a platform to artists encountering barriers due to health, disability, social circumstance, or isolation. They spoke movingly of their own experiences in a ‘New Dialogues’ research group, which works with art created in historical mental health settings. We are delighted that they will present an account of the project at our next symposium.


To date, therefore, the PAN Network has drawn together scholars from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, with common interests in the nineteenth-century history of psychiatry, mental health, madness, and the arts. We have begun to connect with practitioners in the arts, health and heritage sectors, and have much to learn from their experience and interpretations of this history. The parallels between historical and contemporary practice allow for interesting discussions about the broad ways in which the arts might be positioned to help with mental health, and I am particularly grateful to those who are willing to share their personal stories and experiences in ways that both enrich and challenge our research.

The PAN Network continues its work with a further online symposium on 21 March 2024, and a conference planned to take place in Milton Keynes and online on 20-21 June 2024. We would love to connect with anyone whose research or practice lies at the intersections of history, mental health, the arts and heritage, or who would like to contribute to the project in any way.

Information about the PAN Network including the forthcoming symposium and conference can be found on our project website while updates on the project’s progress and my work on music and psychiatry are posted on my research blog . Queries about PAN should be directed to, and the project can be found on Twitter/X at @PsychArts19c

About the author

Rosemary Golding is Senior Lecturer in Music at the Open University, where her research interests centre on aspects of the social and cultural history of music in nineteenth-century Britain. She can be found on X (formerly Twitter) @RosemaryGolding


British Art Network, ‘New Dialogues: Art created historically in mental health settings’ (accessed 6 February 2024)

Dow, Rosie, Warran, Katey, Letrondo, Pilar, Fancourt, Daisy (2023) ‘The arts in public health policy: progress and opportunities’ in Lancet Public Health 2023;8: e155–60

Fancourt, Daisy and Finn, Saoirse (2019) What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review. WHO Health Evidence Network synthesis report 67

Golding, Rosemary (2021). Music and Moral Management in the Nineteenth-Century English Lunatic Asylum. Cham, Palgrave Macmillan.

Hogan, Susan (2001). Healing Arts: The History of Art Therapy. London, Jessica Kingsley.

Park, Maureen (2010) Art in Madness: Dr W. A. F. Browne’s Collection of Patient Art at Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries. Dumfries: Dumfries and Galloway Health Board.

Viola, Erica, Martorana, Marco, Airoldi, Chiara, Meini, Cristina, Ceriotti, Daniele, De Vito, Marta, De Ambrosi, Damiano, Faggiano, Fabrizio (2023), ‘The role of music in promoting health and wellbeing: a systematic review and meta-analysis’. European Journal of Public Health, 33/4, 738–745

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