Hidden Now Heard

The learning disability charity Mencap is halfway through Hidden Now Heard, a three-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We are collecting oral testimonies from former patients, their relatives, and staff from the long-stay hospitals for people with a learning disability in Wales. We use these stories, and any artefacts, to create temporary exhibitions that are shown across Wales (with the help of an army of volunteers). As a non-heritage organisation we continue to learn a great deal as we go along.

13 copyConsent is always a minefield for oral history projects, especially one that could uncover disturbing memories, contentious accounts and potential cases of historical abuse. We separated the issue of consent from assigning copyright, as there will be question marks over former patients’ capacity to consent. We have an easy-read form that gives people as much chance to customise their experience as possible. Interviewees can choose to be recorded on video or audio, they choose the location of the interview, they can bring a friend to support them and decide how their interview will be used.

We are still wrestling with how to communicate that our project doesn’t have a particular agenda; we don’t want to uncover abuse or pretend that the hospitals were all happy places. We want the truth, and we don’t know what that is. We have conducted interviews with nine former patients to date (November 2015), and 22 members of staff. Whilst life expectancy is undoubtedly a factor we often feel that information about our project is either being ignored or not passed on. Former patients may not want to take part but we would prefer to hear that from patients themselves.

Former staff are also cautious. They are interested in our exhibitions and interviews, but not about speaking about their own past experiences or involvement. They may be worried about present public perceptions of past practice. What our exhibitions always try to communicate is that it is the system that should be judged, not the individuals.

One clear example of this is with how tea was served: from one pot that contained milk and sugar, regardless of personal preference. This shows how patients were robbed of the chance to make even basic decisions for themselves. However, staff tell us that they were under great pressure, with often just a couple of staff having to change 20 beds then feed and bath 20 patients.

18 copyDespite the challenges our exhibitions and oral histories have been well received. They uncover stories of dedicated staff working to change a flawed system from within, often by making small change, like serving tea to someone’s personal preference. But they also show an impersonal system, exemplified by the minutes from a meeting in 1971 where staff debated the merits of patients having ‘personal identities’.

Whilst we only have few patients’ stories they are the most eye-opening. They detail friends, romances, work and the times they would run away to the pub. Whilst they never wish to return to institutionalised care, patients had happy recollections of staff or individual moments. In some respects they had more freedom, especially to roam large grounds, that they don’t have today in the community.

Our exhibitions try to be inclusive and we have tried to come up with new ways of displaying oral histories. We embedded stories in a toilet cubicle (pull the flush to hear more). We put a teapot on display which, when it was lifted, played recollections of tea time. Our best received idea was the ward bed; a pressure sensor is fitted under the sheets which plays recollections about privacy and bedtime through a pillow in the speaker.

Sadly, due to issues around capacity and the age of former patients none are able to consent to their interviews being available online or via social media, but from 2017 they will be in St Fagan’s National History Archive in Cardiff. You can listen to full interviews with former staff on our podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes (search for ‘Hidden Now Heard’), you can also access them at hiddennowheard.podomatic.com.

To keep up to date with developments from the project you can follow us on twitter @hiddennowheard or at facebook.com/hiddennowheard

Paul Hunt