Kew Asylum Museum / Archives

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The Kew Asylum or Willsmere project was a fairly unusual one for ASAP combining an Archive, Museum, and Resource Collection. Before discussing the project, It would be advantageous to know something of the history of Kew Asylum. Below is a very brief history written by Daniel Cass, the historian who did the research and archival work for this project.

In the nineteenth century, Enlightenment principles were applied to the treatment of mental illness. "Lunatics" were placed in the new Asylums, where illnesses of the mind would be cured by a scientific approach. The treatment program included medical therapies, routine work and strong moral guidance.

Kew was one of the largest asylums ever built and conveyed the great optimism of the Victorian colony after the Gold Rush. It was known as a "barracks" style building, with two great wings, one for women and the other for men, and neat rows of beds in each ward. Mealtimes, toilet access and social activities followed a regular timetable, in order to create an environment of normality. Smaller versions of Kew were constructed at Beechworth and Ararat.

Unfortunately Kew Asylum never lived up to these high expectations. Few patients were ever cured and released back into the community. Inadequate government funding encouraged gross mistreatment of patients and Kew was subject to repeated public criticism leading to a Royal Commission in 1886. For the first half of this century conditions and morale were low.

In the 1950s a new wave of reform came, with widespread criticism of the huge nineteenth century medical institutions. The Mental Hygiene Authority turned Kew into the Willsmere Mental Hospital, for the care of aged patients who had psychological problems and physical diseases such as Alzheimer's. Kew was earmarked for closure and eventually ceased operating in 1988, with the buildings and huge grounds sold for private development.

The Kew Lunatic Asylum, later known as Willsmere Hospital is an important part of Australia's public history. It is listed on the Register of the National Estate and classified by the National Trust.

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We were approached to establish an interpretive museum at the Willsmere Historic Site, by the Conservation Architect for the development company, Central Equity Ltd. This site was developed into a condominium-style housing complex, but a condition of the development permit from the Historic Buildings Council required that a section of the building be set aside and maintained as a museum that documented the history of the site. ASAP took on the project despite the minimal funding because supposedly we were the only people who could and would undertake a project like this.

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Our work at Willsmere included the creation of an interpretive display in a section of the old "Female Paying Patients Ward", development of an Archive / Resource Collection consisting of related archival material and publications, and the production of a brochure outlining a brief history of the site and a map showing points of interest.

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The Archive / Resource Collection consists of the few remaining records and artefacts left behind when Central Equity gained control of the site from A.V. Jennings. Many of the artefacts are architectural fragments, significant because the building is recognised as having the longest facade in the southern hemisphere, and because of the history of the site. The conservation architect took great pains to preserve what she could of the original design, despite the enormous changes that were taking place. Original features such as doorways and footpaths were painted a different colour from features added by the developers. Despite this, almost every trace of the building's past has been eradicated - after all, who would want to live with constant reminders of the asylum and the unfortunate inhabitants that came before?

Much of the material, that is, the records and artefacts, relating to the history of mental health in Victoria is held by the Public Records Office of Victoria, Health and Community Services Victoria, and the Museum of Victoria, but there were a few items of interest still remaining at the Willsmere site. The actual space itself - the Female Paying Patients Ward has been preserved as the most important record of the history of that site. One small example of this is the glass in the windows of that ward - unlike the other sections of the building, the original glass has been retained in the windows there complete with scratch-marks made by many "inmates" over the years.

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The Kew Asylum Archives / Resource Collection not only consists of records and artefacts found at the site, but also consists of material collected during the project such as copies of plans and drawings of the site compiled by the conservation architect, and copies of reports, photographs and publications relevant to the history of Willsmere and Kew Mental Asylum. The material held at the Willsmere site is intended as a resource for researchers, residents and all other interested parties.

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The interpretive display in the Female Paying Patients Ward was created by ASAP Staff and Museum Consultant Dr. Richard Gillespie, with the help of two graphics designers from the Museum of Victoria, and uses image and text panels alongside artefacts such as an ECT machine, and wheelchair. We are currently developing a web site for this project using photographs, some of the graphics and text from the display, and the Guide to the records and artefacts. The printed Guide not only lists the artefacts, records and publications held at Willsmere, but it also lists other sources for further information about Kew Asylum, the Willsmere site and the history of mental health in Victoria.

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This project is a good example of what is possible - even with a very small budget.

[Go to 'The Records of John Stewart Turner'] [Go to 'The Giant's Eye: the Optical Munitions Exhibition']

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Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, August 1997.
Prepared by: Lisa Cianci and Helen Morgan
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 25 February 1998