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Bird cage from Sussex Lunatic Asylum, England, 1859-1939

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Asylums could be dreary places. In the early 1900s, the optimism of moral therapy began to fade as the great Victorian asylums gradually filled beyond their capacity with hundreds and thousands of patients considered beyond hope of recovery. Their majestic architecture and large, sunlit day-rooms, originally considered therapeutic, became increasingly desolate and isolating. In an attempt to brighten them up a little, caged parrots and birds were added. Photographs taken of asylums in this period show that many of them had bird cages. This is one of the few that have survived in museum collections. Why might birds have been kept at the Sussex Lunatic Asylum? This cage held three parakeets, which would have provided a little bit of colour and song in patients' otherwise dull days. It is likely that the birds' care and feeding would have been entrusted to one of the asylum’s long-term patients, and such a responsibility may have helped a patient feel significant. Do you think the bird’s keeper saw something of himself or herself in the predicament of the caged bird?

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Glossary: asylum

A historic term for a psychiatric hospital. The term in this context was common in the 1700s and 1800s, but is no longer in use.

Glossary: bird cage

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