A Girl Mad as Birds (Nellie Bly and the Lunatic’s Ball)

This installation of portraits, poetic objects, preserved bird skins, nests and text explores the commonly belief in 19th century psychiatry that women were predisposed to madness. The portraits are loosely based on photographs taken by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond from 1848 to 1858, using the new art form of photography to record the features of female patients and diagnose their “illness”. The Lunatic’s Ball took place in many asylums where, in tragic irony where mistreatment was constant, doctors, attendants and patients all danced together. Journalist Nellie Bly’s exposé, Ten Days in a Madhouse (1887) shed light on the misdiagnosis and horrific treatment of patients at Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Although forced into silence, every woman imagined freedom as “a girl mad as birds”.

The quoted title and text in this exhibition are from the poem, “Love in the Asylum” by Dylan Thomas.