Beechworth Asylum: Visitors’ Day photographs (1880-1900)

These two black and white photographs of the Beechworth Asylum are titled and dated differently. Photograph One is titled ‘Visitors’ Day’ (circa 1900), and the second is titled: ‘At Beechworth Asylum’ (1880-1900). The visitor’s outfits are identical, and although the angle and quality differ, I suggest both photographs were taken on the same day.

The first photograph captures crowds of people in front of the palatial main administrative building and walking along the circular driveway. The ‘Italianate’ style asylum, set on a hill amidst agricultural lands and picturesque botanical gardens, exemplifies the therapeutic landscape philosophy which underpinned asylum design in the nineteenth century.

Photograph One: Visitors’ Day (circa 1900) courtesy the Burke Museum, Beechworth, Victoria

There are groups of smartly dressed people, women with parasols, men in suits, and a group of children in the foreground looking directly at the camera. The poses suggest the visitors were directed by the photographer, who has created a powerful, staged performance constructed purely for the camera. Notably, the patients are absent from these images, raising questions about what the asylum is trying to convey in these two ‘Visitors’ Day’ photographs.

This absence is significant given the public’s earlier outrage over the poor treatment of the insane in Victorian asylums, highlighted by Julian Thomas, aka ‘The Vagabond,’ in The Argus (1876–1877). His exposé of abuses in lunatic asylums, along with the findings of the Zox Royal Commission (1884–1886), which recommended improvements in patient care and administration, had stirred public concern.

Photograph Two: At the Beechworth Asylum (1880 – 1900) courtesy the Burke Museum, Beechworth, Victoria

These two ‘Visitors’ Day’ photographs likely served as propaganda to shift the public’s perceptions away from the poor conditions of insane asylums. They offer a scene of social benevolence and illustrate the insane were not isolated from visitors or from the local community in which the asylum was located (Scull 1989). By presenting a scene reminiscent of an upper-class garden party, despite the absence of patients, the images use strategies of artifice to counteract the negative image of asylums as places of harsh conditions and misery, promoting instead a vision of a peaceful and social environment.

Written by Dr Alison Watts, Adjunct Lecturer at Southern Cross University.
See Alison’s full bio here

Scull, Andrew, Social Order/Mental Disorder, Anglo-American Psychiatry in Historical Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
See also The man who called himself ‘The Vagabond’
The Burke Museum, Beechworth, Victoria

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