A revamped museum in Italy is providing a hands-on and heads-on approach to mental illness. The Museo della Mente (Mind's Museum), which originally opened in 2000, is located on the outskirts of Rome in a former psychiatric hospital that closed in 1978. At that time, a law was passed in Italy that drew patients into mainstream society, "substituting community services for institutionalized care of many of the mentally ill."1
When it opened, the Mind's Museum was intended to provide an historic glimpse into the world of the psychiatric patient. Today, the museum still operates on this premise, albeit through a somewhat different approach. In addition to a recent major technological overhaul, the museum now houses several interactive exhibits that make visitors feel as if they are in a psychiatric hospital. In one exhibit, a photograph of the visitor is projected on a board with photos of past patients at the institution who recount their life stories through taped monologues. In another, visitors sit at a desk with their hands cupped over their ears to hear whispers and unseen voices. The result? For a brief moment, visitors experience firsthand the world of mental illness, thus helping to dispel myths surrounding it.
The Mind's Museum is not merely a hands-on, participatory, high-tech exhibit of mental illness. Under the leadership of Pompeo Martelli, this former psychiatric complex houses current national health system offices along with "the largest historical psychiatric archive in Italy . . . preserving more than 250,000 case histories of patients who were treated there since around 1850."1 Using new software developed by Martelli's staff, "other Italian psychiatric archives have been following the lead of the Museo della Mente. A resulting network will provide researchers with a database that tracks past psychiatric trends and tendencies in Italy."