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//Hospitals, Museums, Us// – Elżbieta Sala

Hospitals, Museums, Us – Elżbieta Sala

Elżbieta Sala (b. 1984) – graduate of philosophy and psychology at the Jagiellonian University and political sciences at the University of Rzeszow. PhD student at the Faculty of Philosophy, Jagiellonian University, psychologist and therapist. She manages MOCAK’s Education Department.

A person in a specific mental state does not understand that the world that he or she perceives, sees, experiences, one that is so unique and certain – does not exist in the same form for other people.[1] Stanisław Brzozowski

I still perfectly remember the fear I felt during my first visits at psychiatric rehabilitation or personality disorder treatment wards of the psychiatric hospital in Krakow. I visited these institutions as part of my mandatory classes and training. I was very moved by the words of Bogdan Białek, who, in one of his articles, wrote ‘the fear of disease is in its essence the fear of the “Other” that is present within ourselves. We become withdrawn in the face of fear of being rejected in the very same way in which we reject those that are weaker than ourselves’.[2] I don’t think that people with mental problems are weaker than ‘we are’. Because who are we actually? On the other hand, I think that the feelings experienced when entering a psychiatric hospital may be connected with doubts about our own mental state and the fate that may become ours if the pressure of reality becomes too heavy a burden.

Regardless of how much we want to engage in the affirmation of life, the world that surrounds us, together with the one we carry within ourselves, sometimes becomes simply unbearable. Maybe this is why Philip K. Dick once wrote that sometimes the best response to reality is to go insane. But what is insanity? One of the definitions of this phenomenon tells us that it is a mental state in which one is not able to discern whether something is really happening or is just a figment of imagination. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists refer to this phenomenon as psychosis. People that know the afflicted person can notice the consequences of a long and painful process of ‘signing out of the world’. The person buries his or her feelings deep down, destroys all emotional ties with friends and family, while reality loses its significance and starts falling apart.

Art is a Bridge

For less than a year, I have run a series of projects for psychiatric patients, co-operating with MOCAK’s Education Department, Kinga Lubowiecka and Maria Prawelska. We work with people recovering from mental crises. It is definitely not therapy, although our workshops contribute to the healing process. I think that the very act of coming to an art museum, an institution, helps patients in the painstaking process of recovery, in rebuilding the emotional connection with the world. It is a valuable learning experience for the Museum’s team, which is why the project executed together with the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Ward of the Dr Józef Babiński Specialist Hospital in Krakow was named Creative Exchange. Patients have the chance to see the works displayed at MOCAK and then prepare their own projects, which we then discuss. Hospital staff are present at the sessions to provide Museum employees with support in situations that may seem unclear or difficult. This type of projects are therefore a perfect opportunity to meet with a unique area of social reality, in a setting that helps getting insight into this particular area.

The workshops organised by MOCAK also help both the patients and Museum employees to better integrate these aspects of their own character that they may be hard for them to accept. The sessions give voice to the creative, mature part of the patients’ personalities, causing them to think that maybe ‘they could become healthy’ and that life outside the hospital may also be friendly and ready to accept them despite their personal struggles. The hosts integrate and accept all thoughts expressed by the patients in connection with their problems and limitations.

The everyday life of a museum may actually not be that different from that of a hospital. Krakow’s psychiatric ward, commonly referred to as Kobierzyn, is located in small, historic buildings, situated in a beautiful park at the outskirts of the city. One of the buildings hosts a theatre, large-format paintings decorate its walls. The hospital holds around one thousand works created by its patients within the last decades. The wards organise permanent exhibitions, solo shows, opening nights, performances and auctions where you can buy pottery crafted in special workshops. Art has become a bridge connecting the realities of the hospital and the museum.

Our co-operation with the Centre for Senior Citizens, run by the Society for the Development of Psychiatry and Community Care, as well as workshops organised for the pupils of the 2nd Special School and Education Centre in Krakow for chronically ill children and teenagers, also with mental problems, treated at the St. Louis Voivodeship Specialist Children’s Hospital and the University Hospital in Krakow, is equally rewarding. We also co-operate with the Community of Hope Foundation, which runs the ‘Life Farm’ centre – a place of permanent residence, work, therapy, rehabilitation and entertainment for adults with autism. Each of these groups contributed immensely to the professional and personal development of the Education Department team. The patients’ visit resonate throughout the whole Museum.

This Is Not Whatever

I think that the basic skill you need to run this type of projects is to be able to put yourself in the shoes of a person that experiences the world differently, while preserving your own autonomy. The ability to notice and acknowledge the reality of another person, without rejecting the truth of one’s own experiences, enables all participants to leave with something new: a new thought, a different perspective. It makes us richer and helps us change.

Although it may seem surprising, the most difficult situations in our work did not arise during the co-operation with the institutions and organisations that I have mentioned above. At one of our workshops organised during the Disabilities Week at MOCAK, we had an eighty-year-old man who thought that all people he talked to were his grandmother. After the tour, when we asked the group to create their own works, this man sat down by himself, but I felt that his state really affected the mood of the entire group. I think that the other participants were a bit afraid of him. I approached him and asked him to draw something. He looked at me and said, ‘But I don’t know how to, grandma’. I started drawing a picture, explaining everything I was doing, and asked him to finish something for me. This elderly man took a felt-tip pen in his hand, made several strokes, and then asked, ‘Is it okay, grandma? Am I doing this right?’. I told him to go with his own feelings. ‘So I can draw whatever?’, ‘No, please draw what you feel. This is not whatever’. Much to the surprise of his guardians, the man started to draw. At first, he was shy. Then he opened a book and drew a man, writing the word ‘Soldier’ underneath. When I saw this picture, I said, ‘Maybe you could draw your grandma now, sir, you’ve told us so much about her’. I felt the group hold their breath and look at the man intently. He sketched a picture and then, laughing almost to tears, pointed at the portrait and repeatedly said ‘Grandma’. The group also started to laugh, as if with relief. I kept asking questions, ‘How was your grandma dressed?’, ‘Did she wear an apron?’, ‘Where there any flowers on it?’ – ‘Yes, there were’, my interlocutor confirmed. ‘Please draw them’ – ‘What else did grandma have?’ – ‘Grandma had pigs, a cow, a bag of potatoes, an orchard’. ‘Please, draw them for me’. The old man sketched away, and the whole group skipped a heartbeat. The last picture this man prepared presented himself next to his grandmother, with a house and a dog in the background (see opposite page).

Social Co-operation Laboratories

A confrontation with aspects of the world that are usually rejected or denied in order to truly meet with the other person makes it possible to achieve a more comprehensive, in-depth understanding of oneself and others, with a stronger feeling of firm ground. Things start to matter. This type of experiences reinforce and integrate the team, while the groups we invite always offer their reaction. We receive very touching feedback from patients and therapists. Quite frequently, it turns out that the Museum can cause the impossible to finally happen: a withdrawn person becomes creative, people with autism actively engage in their work, sitting next to each other or around a small table, groups start taking initiative. When patients from the Krakow’s Neurosis and Personality Disorder Ward first heard about the option of visiting the Museum, they were not very keen on the idea: they spent several weeks discussing whether to respond to the invitation. Their second visit was their own, grassroots initiative, pre-organised by the patients, who drafted a list of applicants.

Professor Dorota Folga-Januszewska once said on a radio that ‘museums are small social co-operation laboratories and are currently changing their mode of functioning’. MOCAK also participates in this trend, initiating processes aimed at social integration through, for instance, confrontation with things that are different, with ‘the other within ourselves’. I would like to add, however, that I prefer the word ‘different’ to ‘the other’. To my mind, it does not suggest as much of a divide between two different people.

The following pages present a gallery of works created within the programme Museum Without Barriers, run by MOCAK’s Education Department. One of the fundamental goals pursued by the Museum is to make art accessible to the broadest possible audience. By co-operating with institutions and organisations that support groups that risk various types of exclusion, we can create diverse, long-term projects that cater to the needs of specific audiences.

p. 76–77
Works created in December 2012 at the Intercollage workshop organised for the Centre for Senior Citizens, run by the Society for the Development of Psychiatry and Community Care. The aim of the Centre is to help the elderly that suffer from mental disorders to lead an independent life in their own environment, and to enhance their social interactions in order to prevent complete isolation and neglect.

p. 78–79
Works created by the patients of the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Ward of the Dr Józef Babiński Specialist Hospital in Krakow, created at the Image and Word workshop in January 2013. The participants had the opportunity to create their self-portraits.

p. 80–81
A work created in May 2013 at the workshop Discover the Other Side, organised for the pupils from 2nd Special School Complex, an institution for chronically ill children and teenagers, also with mental disabilities, treated at the St. Louis Voivodeship Specialist Children’s Hospital and the University Hospital in Krakow. During the workshop, the group had the chance to acquaint themselves with artist’s books from the MOCAK Collection and created pieces devoted to the surprising aspects of their own personalities.

[1] S. Brzozowski, Legenda Młodej Polski. Studia o strukturze duszy kulturalnej, in: S. Brzozowski, Eseje i studia o literaturze, vol. 2, Wrocław – Warszawa – Kraków – Gdańsk – Łódź 1990, p. 729.

[2] B. Białek, Każdy może zachorować psychicznie, ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’ 2013, no. 3, http://tygodnik.onet.

pl/1,79499,druk.html [retrieved: 9.10.2013].