In May this year I undertook a research trip to view the historic records of Ladysbridge Hospital, in preparation for the Project Ability and C-Change visual art and social history project Ladysbridge Stories. These records are held by NHS Grampian Archives Special Collections at the Robert Gordon University Building in Aberdeen.
Not all the archive has survived but the collection does contain a wealth of material, such as patient’s case notes, admission and minute’s books, financial records, registers, maps, plans and photographs. The significance of such an archive can’t be underestimated and provides us with important working tools which help us understand the past. However, what such archives present is also a conspicuous absence of personal experience and human presence.
Our understanding of the past can be formed by historic records but it’s always important to look for what’s been left out or overlooked.
Deserted dining rooms and dormitories in documentary photography indicate the presence of patients, highlighting only their absence. No personal effects can be seen, with bed-side lockers along with curtains separating baths only introduced in 1957. A small photo pinned to a ward window frame and a basket of crumpled laundry in a door-less toilet block are the only physical evidence of human life.
Patient’s case notes form forlorn bundles tied up with string. Each bundle of notes charts the life of up to 20 patients recording their personal details and outlining their condition. Often terms used to describe patients in these records are now considered derogatory and offensive but reflect the attitudes and language of the time. Patients might be referred to as ‘low grade defectives’, ‘lunatics’ and ‘Idiots’.
By documenting the views and memories of those living with Learning Disabilities through projects such as Ladysbridge Stories we can share our histories and shape the future together.