Dr Anna Jamieson (Birkbeck) joined us in November to discuss ‘Practical Hints: The Art of the Asylum Visitor Book in the early nineteenth-century’

Abstract: By the early decades of the nineteenth century, asylums and hospitals had become mainstays of England’s philanthropic tourist circuit. Providing visitors with the opportunity to interact with human suffering, they were uniquely placed to encourage and facilitate the display of humanity and refinement deemed socially appropriate during this period. At the end of the asylum tour, many visitors had the opportunity to publicly record their responses in a communal visitor book – where they would write their name, place of residence, and typically a few lines discussing what they had seen. Characterising the asylum visitor book as a material site where themes of philanthropy and performance meet, this paper explores the issues at stake in the act of committing one’s thoughts to paper within this space. On the one hand, it argues that this ritual enabled the performance of one’s philanthropy, demonstrating the tourist’s fluency in topics surrounding the smooth running of the institution. On the other, I argue that writing in the asylum visitor book allowed a reflective moment of emotional recovery – an ameliorating endpoint to the psychological strain of a visit to the asylum itself.

BioAnna Jamieson is an interdisciplinary art historian specialising in visual and material cultures of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Anna is currently working on a book exploring asylum tourism between 1770-1845. Her research interests include: women and patient agency; illness, fashion and consumerism; dark tourism and enfreakment; material culture and the history of emotions.