lunatic asylum

PhD(on’t you forget about me): Building a Thesis around the Lunatic Asylum and its Subaltern Lives

My name is Linnea Kuglitsch.

My day opens documentary research at an enviable nine o’clock in the morning. This timing is a far throw from my days in cultural resource management, where six-thirty meant sleeping in. This morning in Manchester, UK, there’s no sun in the sky and that makes it trickier than ever to get moving. That’s another change most Virginian mornings, where I’d lived for the better part of five years. Sun or none, I’m incredibly grateful to be where I am now; beginning the second year of my doctoral research at the University of Manchester, with a growing doctoral thesis that I have yet to loose passion for.

My research focuses on a historic demographic that continues to struggle to be heard, even in the present day; the mentally ill. My thesis will explore what archaeological assemblages can tell us about a series of asylum-based practices known as moral management. Moral management dominated American asylums for the better part of the nineteenth century, and lingered longer to some extent in the western states. It turned the built and material landscape into a mechanism of bodily and mental improvement and cure via an iconic physical landscape that balanced domesticity, occupational training, and diversion with other concerns like containment and control. Ultimately, professionals at these Victorian institutions hoped order, routine, prevention, and respect would rebuild the self-esteem and self-control of the insane, realigning them with rationality. Strained by fiscal limitations and overcrowding, these efforts ultimately fell short; however, the specialized architectural and artifactual record of these sites offers a rich and under-explored historical and cultural context for my analysis. Over the next two years, I will examine how curative encounters mediated by the material world resonated with cultural understandings of madness in the nineteenth century and test whether the attitudes and actions of the patient leave any discernible archaeological footprint.

An image of the iconic stairwell to the rooftop porches  of the Western Lunatic Asylum in Staunton, Virginia. This was taken during field research for an undergraduate thesis on the site, which led to my passion for researching institutional landscapes. Taking the air and viewing the rolling hills of the surrounding landscape was regarded as both a diversion and a way of improving individual health. Photo by author, 2014

I realize, as I type, that my thoughts have strayed to the tiny Virginian town of Staunton, where my interest in the institutional treatment of mental illness originated. To avoid falling too deeply into field nostalgia—which we as archaeologists can be very good at, I think, watching it begin to drizzle—I get down to business. In just a few weeks, I’ll be back in the United states, getting to work on the functional analysis of archaeological materials from two historic asylums that practiced moral management. For now, it’s time to lay the groundwork for my later analysis. I flip open my laptop and get to reading my primary sources. This morning, I continue a content-analysis of the scrapbooks of Dr. John Galt II, superintendent to the Eastern Lunatic Asylum from 1841 to 1862 There are four volumes of these scrapbooks. Each one is filled with newspaper articles carefully cut and pasted together. I run through these articles, with titles ranging “Suicide of a Communist” to “Atheists and Lunatics,” I begin to outline specific themes and categories that tie them together. Perhaps these themes reflect what appealed to and concerned Galt as the head of an asylum that needed to be brought into line with the more fashionable institutions springing up along the eastern spine of the United States. Whether these themes resonate with the physical remains of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum remains to be seen; in just a few months I will be analyzing archaeological collections and (physical) archives housed at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in hopes of connecting this rhetoric to evidence of actual, material practice. This research, coupled with data from a second case study from the pacific northwest, should provide a solid scaffolding for my doctoral thesis.

My mornings always feel unjustifiably luxurious and relaxed when I juxtapose them with my experience in cultural resource management, even as I struggle through primary sources—some fragments of these scrapbooks are next to illegible. Photo by author, 2017

Around twelve, I pack a lunch, grab an umbrella (predictably, it’s threatening to rain), and hop the bus down to the main University campus. Once arrived, I hunker down in the library and get to editing the first two chapters of my thesis. The main library is labyrinthine, but after two years of searching out books and quiet workspaces it doesn’t take me long to find a quiet corner and get to work.

I spend a little over an hour re-organizing a and editing section of my literature review before the highlight of my day arrives—lab time. In contrast to the time I spent in cultural resource management, where so much of the was down to processing and identifying artifacts recovered during systematic testing (from eighteenth-century cufflink gems to huge pieces of relatively modern toilet cisterns), lab work is a refreshing break from staring at a glaring laptop screen or a scrap of paper in the dimly lit archival work space. I pack up my things and head to Mansfield-Cooper, a sad-looking, linear building that houses the UoM Archaeology Department. In preparation for my doctoral fieldwork, Professor Eleanor Casella has been providing training in functional analysis for me, using finds from the most recent excavations. This level of one-on-one training is representative of the culture of the Archaeology Department at the University of Manchester. Despite being hugely understaffed—it’s the smallest department with top-ten ranking in UK archaeology—the lecturers are incredibly invested in their students and generous with their time. This department is characterized by one of the most friendly and supportive academic cultures I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience.

Photo by author, 2017.

We begin to process and catalogue materials from the 2015 season of the Kerry Lodge Archaeology Project, a community-oriented excavation that centers on convict-era features in northern Tasmania. I began attending KLAP in 2016, so the materials we’re processing are new to me—and despite my previous experience, I learn a great deal with every batch of finds. We sort through all sorts of sherds, shards, and other bits and pieces; shards of glass from square gin cases, the fragmented remains of ammunition and textured scraps of rubber. Artifacts from each context are sorted by fabric and cleaned. This primes these assemblages to be catalogued. Professor Casella and I weigh, measured and record the form, material, and specific function of each artifact. As we move into contexts of interest, I gain confidence in dealing with materials that I never encountered during my time in cultural resources management, from the thick, iridescent glass sherds of a panel mirror to an intact gunflint. As we set to inventorying each batch, the materials are cleaned and set out to dry overnight.

Ceramics and glass from one context, cleaned and waiting until next week. Photo by author, 2017.

Over the next week, the process will continue—and as I clean, catalogue, and photograph, I become increasingly confident in my capacity to gather my own data.  The history I hope to plumb is a delicate and dark one; however, I feel the benefits of my research outweigh its risks. Historical attitudes have shaped current narratives surrounding mental illness. If we can dredge up a bit more of the past, we can contextualize the difficulties, stigma, and challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals today. Perhaps one day I can transform this unique focus into an outreach project with its own therapeutic value. For now, I have to settle for  building the core research from which I may someday be able to build such a project–and really, that feels nothing like settling at all.

To learn more about my research on and interest in the nineteenth-century lunatic asylum and other historic institutions–from penitentiaries to boarding schools–join me on researchgate or twitter.


 

Unfortunately, the research I’ve outlined today—and many more projects like it, undertaken by aspiring and early career scholars, heritage-workers, and field-archaeologists—is currently struggling to survive. The University of Manchester Administration has recently proposed a massive cut to the to its senior faculty. Among the of 171 senior staff members slated for termination, professors from the archaeology department have been uniquely targeted. Come next July, we will lose four of our eight full-time lecturers, already down from a full twelve the last year. This action (justified under the unsubstantiated rhetoric of “improving the student experience”) cuts an already strained department in half, and will leave use well beyond functioning capacity. Several stakeholders have approached the University, which has now sworn to provide “no further answers” to concerns voiced in protestation of these unjustified cuts from within the institution. However, If you can spare just a moment, please sign on to this petition protesting these actions—if you have more time, the faculty and students would be very grateful if you would send an email or letter of support (or gentle admonishment) to Dame Nancy Rothwell, whose contact details I will list below.  You can learn more about our cause (and other ways to support it) here. If you’re interested in how this process is negatively affecting aspiring researchers, check out this post from another doctoral candidate in our department.

Contacts to Protest Cuts to University of Manchester Arts and Archaeology Staff

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester
M13 9PL
president@manchester.ac.uk

Professor Keith Brown
Dean of Humanities
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester
M13 9PL
Keith.brown@manchester.ac.uk

Mr Edward Astle
Chair of the Board of Governors
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester
M13 9PL
chair@manchester.ac.uk