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Madness and Modernity: mental illness, the visual arts and architecture in fin de siècle Vienna – popular exhibitions in London and Vienna

Award Information

Discipline: Culture & Museum Studies
Funding opportunity: Research Grant
Areas of Impact: Culture and Heritage; Health and wellbeing; Museums and collections; Stimulating debate and shifting perceptions
Lead RO: Birkbeck College
Region: London

Mention 1900s Vienna and many people would think of the art of Gustav Klimt and the research of Sigmund Freud. Now, pioneering new research has discovered links between the fin de siècle art movement and the development of understanding of mental health. By challenging prevailing attitudes, Dr Leslie Topp’s AHRC-funded research has contributed a new understanding of the role of the arts at the time.

‘The project developed out of my on-going research on the connections between psychiatry and architecture in Vienna and Central Europe around 1900,’ explains Dr Topp. ‘In the first comparative exploration of asylum buildings, I developed a new understanding of the role of modernist architecture in the design of such institutions, and the treatment of their patients.’

A major exhibition resulting from her collaboration with Dr Gemma Blackshaw -“Madness and Modernity: Mental illness and the visual arts in Vienna 1900” - found an enthusiastic audience at the Wien Museum, Vienna, and the Wellcome Collection, London, which saw audience figures of 44,000, exceeding all expectations.

The exhibition received extensive media coverage, here and in Austria, in both general and specialist publications. It was highlighted in over 20 ‘critics’ choice’ lists and also featured on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, and Saturday Review, and on BBC World Service. It featured in the review of the week in the British Medical Journal and was described as ‘a must-see’ in The Lancet.

A double-screen video  installation by award-winning filmmaker David Bickerstaff included in the exhibition, showing interiors of the 18th-century ‘Tower of Fools’, a cylindrical Viennese mental institution, provided Bickerstaff with a number of further commissions and opportunities for his work, at the Wellcome Collection and elsewhere.

Topp’s experience of curating a multi-disciplinary exhibition was called upon when she was interviewed and quoted extensively in a Museum’s Journal article on innovative approaches in guest-curated exhibitions in February 2009. Her work was even called upon in an effort to save the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital, one of the buildings featured in her research  from radical changes due to private development. In November 2012, she was asked by the president of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) Austria to write a report on the building as part of a bid to have the hospital included in the UNESCO world heritage list.

For more information on the project visit: Madness and Modernity: mental illness, the visual arts and architecture in fin de siècle Vienna.

Associated image: pixelsniper on Flickr by CC 2.0