MA Museum Studies Placement in Special Collections, Weeks 5-6

Guest post from Yineng Zhu, Andrew Permain and Joe Searle, MA Museum Studies students working with the Archives & Special Collections team.



Hello, I’m Yineng Zhu. Over the last two weeks, I have continued to modify the Library’s history timeline and added more photographs and content, including: Professor Jack Simmons, Librarian Brian Burch, and Philip Larkin. Also, I have added two stories: In 1943 the Assistant Librarian was called-up for war work and in 1946 Philip Larkin was appointed as Assistant Librarian. I also added a photograph of the Library store on the Putney Road site in 1993 and English Local History Collections on the 3rdfloor of the David Wilson Library. If you want to look through the timeline, here is the link:


Meanwhile, I wrote some captions for the physical exhibition which will be located in the basement of the David Wilson Library. My chosen theme for the exhibition will be the significant gift donations in the Library’s history, such as: the Topographical Collection donated by Thomas Hatton in 1920, Transport History Collection donated by Professor Jack Simmons in 1951, the Flora Graeca presented by Charles R. Frears in 1962, and the Sue Townsend Collection donated in 2005.

In the next week, I will focus on label design and object selection, as well as mockups of displays in the reading room. Considering the exhibition environment in the basement, I will mainly use copies to avoid light damage for archives. Apart from the exhibition environment, there are some other challenges. For example, the limited space for the exhibition and the accessibility of the showcase for disabled people. I will make some plans to deal with those challenges and test them in practice.



Wow anther two weeks have gone so it’s time for another update. Over the past two weeks, I have been very busy digging around in the Local records office ( to see what I could find. There is vast amounts held there with not all of it being relevant to what I am looking for. That is the key problem with archival research: you never quite know what you are going to find. This is because there is only a limited amount of information that can be put in the online catalogue, so it is a case of using a general description and hoping for the best. Last Friday I set myself the challenge of attempting to find two particular photos that showed the inside of the Asylum. According to their reference, they were part of a particular collection held at the Record Office. Therefore, I ordered up the collection that they should be part of to find out they were not there. Following that, I then turned to the paper catalogue to see if I could determine where else in that collection they could have been. This again yielded no luck. After that, I ended the search, as there was no guarantee they were even in the Record Office. However, while searching for them I did find some more photos of the 5th Northern General Hospital. I am now in the process of writing up all the information gathered so far and producing several different ways of presenting this information. This will allow the information to be used in different ways depending on what it may be needed for.




As previously mentioned, my final output for this work placement will be an interactive history of the Fielding Johnson building designed for the devices in the Digital Reading Room. Last week, I started to explore possible ways of presenting the digitised material I had already acquired, and emerged with some interesting prototypes involving Deep Zoom Images. Yet before I could begin this project in earnest, I found that I needed to learn more about the building and the various roles it has fulfilled throughout the years, since my existing knowledge was inadequate for the task at hand.  Therefore, I spent most of this week researching the Fielding Johnson building using a wide variety of online sources, and familiarising myself with how it has changed and developed over time. This information was then used to produce a rough prototype which helped me to visualise how I might bring all these elements together and present the history of the Fielding Johnson in an interactive way.



The Victorian Lunatic Asylum


To begin, I first wanted to find an answer to a question that had plagued me since I first saw plans of the Fielding Johnson – why exactly is the building the shape that it is? Any cursory look at the floor plans reveals a building that is full of narrow corridors – not the most practical design for an army hospital (or indeed for a University building) – and yet there must have been some purpose behind its original layout, which first opened as a Lunatic Asylum in 1837. Unfortunately, though we do know the names of the original architects (they were: George Wallett – who had been involved in the design of asylums in Suffolk and Dorset, and William Parsons – the Leicester County Surveyor), we do not seem to have any material from this formative period that would help to answer this question. Therefore, I decided to delve into the literature surrounding early lunatic asylums and the treatment of the insane to see if this would provide any clues.


Figure 1: Layout of the Fielding Johnson Building (from about 1915)



When one imagines the historical lunatic asylum, perhaps the image that comes to mind most often is that of Bedlam in London (or Bethlem Royal Hospital as it was more properly known), which by the eighteenth-century had acquired an infamous reputation, and was forever immortalised by William Hogarth in that final nightmarish scene of A Rake’s Progress. However, the beginning of the nineteenth-century brought about a more enlightened attitude towards the treatment of the mentally ill, and it is within this context that the Leicester Asylum was constructed. John Conolly, for example, in his 1847 book The Construction and Government of Lunatic Asylums, was keen to stress that asylums should be ‘a place of cure’ rather than just ‘a place of security’[1] and believed that different asylum designs would affect patients in different ways. He went on to detail where – in his opinion – asylums should be best placed and how exactly they should be arranged for the maximum benefit of its patients.



At this time, it was still commonly believed that ‘bad air’ (or miasma) was the cause of many ailments and diseases (the modern germ theory of disease would only become accepted later in the century thanks to the work of men like John Snow and Louis Pasteur). This helps to explain Conolly’s attitude towards asylum placement, since he stressed the importance of a good location with plenty of space – preferably far from the squalid conditions of the inner city:



We require that the building should be on a healthy site, freely admitting light and air, and drainage. Space should be allowed for summer and winter exercise, for various employments, and for all the purposes of domestic economy.[2]



A similar idea is also expressed by the authors of the 1844 Lunacy Report to the Lord Chancellor:



An Asylum should be placed upon elevated ground, and should command cheerful prospects: the soil should be dry, and there should be plentiful supply of water, and means of proper drainage… The buildings should be surrounded with land sufficient to afford out-door employment for the male, and exercise for all patients, and to protect them from being over-looked, or disturbed by strangers.[3]



Compare those descriptions of how asylums should be situated with an interesting (though perhaps slightly biased) description of the Leicester Lunatic Asylum from the preface to a set of rules in 1849:



Placed on an eminence, and commanding one of the most beautiful views in the County of Leicester, extending over the valley of the Soar, and bounded by the hills of Charnwood Forest, there is everything in its position to soothe and cheer the patient; the grounds belonging to the Asylum comprise in the whole twenty acres, part of which is laid out in walks and pleasure grounds, and the remainder, save such part as is occupied by the building and the yards for the exercise of the Patients, is cultivated as much as may be by the inmates themselves; labour in the open air being found of all employments the most conductive to health of the great majority of the insane; not, however, that the comforts of those who are necessarily debarred from this exercise are neglected, no effort is left untried to cheer the melancholy, and soothe the excited, the great object being to make this Asylum a HOUSE OF CURE, and not a HOUSE OF DETENTION[4]



Possible accusations of bias notwithstanding – it is clear that the site for the Leicester Asylum was carefully considered according to the prevailing medical theories of the day. As for how asylums themselves should best be laid out – Conolly himself recommended a linear design – meaning that the building should be kept long and narrow with wings projecting off at right angles. The advantages of such a system – according to Conolly – was that this would allow for the free movement of air throughout the wards, whilst also admitting a good amount of light, and be convenient for asylum staff.[5] This design was typical for asylums of this period, which has come to be known as the ‘Corridor Plan’.[6] Other asylum forms include Radial (wings emanating from a central hub, similar to prisons), ‘Echelon Plan’ and ‘Pavilion Plan’. We can see, therefore, that the Leicester Asylum follows many of the common conventions of asylum building in this period.



The Fielding Johnson as a Hospital


What began to emerge from my research into the Fielding Johnson was the picture of a building in a continual process of reinvention and adaptation. This was particularly evident when examining how the building was repurposed for use as a hospital during the First World War (the asylum having closed in 1908 and its patients transferred to a new, and considerably larger facility at Narborough). I already had access to architectural plans that showed the various additions to the building during this period, but I was pleased to find an account of the building’s redevelopment from the architects themselves in old journal articles from 1914[7] and 1915[8]. This helped to provide some context to the changes I had noticed on the plans, alongside plenty of other useful information.



Layering Maps


To help get a picture of the building’s development throughout history, I began to order all of the existing plans and drawings of the Fielding Johnson chronologically, whilst also collecting as many maps of the building and its surroundings as I could find – using both Digimap and the National Library of Scotland’s collections of historic maps. Eventually, I had a good spread of maps showing the Fielding Johnson from 1885 to the present day, which I aligned and layered on top of each other for easy reference in Intuiface. One problem that emerged was the lack of maps prior to 1880, which made it more difficult to account for the building’s early history. The only visual material that we have so far is one drawing of the asylum in 1849, which can be cross-referenced with information from textual sources to fill in some of the details. We know for example, that the wings were originally half their length – having been extended in 1848 (which is captured in the 1849 drawing), so we can use this to approximate how the asylum would have originally looked when it was first built in 1837.


Figure 2: The Layered Maps in Intuiface



Figure 3: Drawing of the Asylum in 1849



Rapid Prototyping


Having spent most of the week conducting research, it was now time to pull this material together and explore different ways of presenting it using Intuiface. For this, I decided to try rapid prototyping – a design technique designed to produce rough versions of a concept and quickly test how it performs. In less than one hour, I produced an experience that allowed users to see how the Fielding Johnson was developed over time, which was then examined on the Interactive Table in the Digital Reading Room.


Figure 4: The Rapid Prototype




At the moment, this seems like a viable idea. From my experience of designing content so far (and from the information gathered during the literature review), I believe that it is important to design an experience that is engaging first and foremost – with additional layers of information provided for those that are interested. Tempting though it is to fill this experience with text and images (in the manner of a PowerPoint slide, say) this is unlikely to be effective on the Interactive Wall and Table. Rather, I am planning to have the interactive representation of the Fielding Johnson be the main focus for the user. After choosing a year, they will then be presented with images of the building from that period (alongside the Deep Zoom images), and only then given explanatory text – in an attempt to avoid overwhelming the user with a large mass of information. Hopefully, I can develop a more complete version of this prototype next week and eventually conduct some user testing to see if this approach is successful.



[1] John Conolly, The Construction and Government of Lunatic Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane, (London: 1847), p. 1, Google Books <>.
[2] Ibid, p. 8.
[3] Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor: Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty, (London: Bradbruy and Evans, 1844), p. 14, Google Books <>.
[4] Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum, ‘Rules for General Management’ 1849, quoted in Paul Bartlett, The Poor Law of Lunacy, (London: Leicester University Press, 1999), p. 120.
[5] John Conolly, p. 12.
[6] Mainly thanks to the work of Peter Cracknell at <>, who built upon the groundwork laid by Dr Jeremy Taylor in, Jeremy Taylor, Hospital and Asylum Architecture in England 1840-1914: Building for health care, (London: Mansell, 1991).
[7] Found on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, ‘The Fifth Northern General Hospital, Leicester’, The Hospital, 57, no. 1477, (1914), pp. 35-37, <
[8] ‘The Fifth Northern General Hospital, Leicester: The Recent Additions’, The Hospital, 59, no. 1532, (1914), pp. 81-82,

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