The Installation: Personal Effects: a history of possession

The installation  of PERSONAL EFFECTS: a habitation is presently comprised of the personal effects of dead or discharged patients from Grangegorman Mental Hospital / St Brendan’s Hospital in Dublin. It had its first site-specific exhibition in the Long Stores behind the Clocktower of the main building of old Grangegorman Mental Hospital from 1-10 May 2014. In the context of bringing back to life some of the personal histories discovered within the old asylum this was a most appropriate location close to  the annexe from which the belongings were retrieved in 2010.  The support of the Grangegorman Development Authority in the provision of such an appropriate site-specific location for the project’s inaugural exhibition is gratefully acknowledged.

Long Stores Corridor

The Long Stores was once the central depot for all clothing and foodstuffs for the hospital. In disuse for many years it still bears evidence of its purpose; labels marking shelves that held  underclothing, dressing gowns and all the paraphernalia of daily institutional life can be seen on the walls and this, along with the sense of neglect in the damp spaces of the building, served to heighten the site-specific context of the work.

LongStores 1

On entering the exhibition space from the corridor viewers found themselves within a large dimly lit room. On the walls were various elements found within the hospital or photographs of them.

PE install1

The photographs were composed and taken in Unit 10 of the hospital where the belongings had been stored prior to the demolition of the Unit.


On another, darker side of the room a series of  images were projected onto ward screens.

Grangegorman 4 019

These images were of photographs and other personal memorabilia found within the handbags or the boxes which once contained them. All images were rendered anonymous. This process proved most challenging for it only heightened the imagining of a life’s erasure that many patients must have been experienced.

small girls

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While viewing these images a person could hear the sound of voices coming from a room next door.

Danger:Keep Out

Upon entering this space the viewer found himself, or herself, in almost complete darkness. From the ceiling of the room hung a number of upended handbags and suitcases. The contents of each container was suspended as though falling to the floor. A light source from within each upended container  illuminated its suspended contents below.

Axis-bags detail2 023

In the darkness could be heard  the voices of actors reading from correspondence found within the containers, from case notes and from hospital management records. Click on the following link to hear a sample of the soundtrack (2 mins).

Installed in June 2014 at the neutral and more confined spaces of Culture Box inTemple Bar,Dublin, the work lacked the site-specific resonance of The Long Stores yet proved a more distilled experience. In August 2014, within the theatre space of Axis Ballymun, however, the installation had its most cohesive presentation.

Axis 5-8-14 019 copy

With all seating withdrawn and the theatre space entirely blacked out it was possible to use lighting and sound to best effect. Here we effected the most moving presentation of the rosary beads – of which, along with a set of keys, at least one pair was found in every handbag.

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The intention of the installation has been to remain as true to the content of the belongings and of the archival documents as possible without overt commentary. Aesthetic considerations and the engagement of  a personal morality are confined to the manner of presentation.

The installation, PERSONAL EFFECTS:a history of possession, is a process of bearing witness to the lives of others led within these institutions. The work is a reminder of the institutional conditions within which our fellow citizens were confined, of the care they received and of how, despite the best intentions of some, or due to a wider carelessness,  the personal dignity of many was compromised and their individuality erased.

It is intended that this work will develop further and travel to other public venues in those towns where asylums were  located around the country.

See Posts for responses from the Visitors’ Book.

3 thoughts on “The Installation: Personal Effects: a history of possession”

  1. If you don’t know of it already, I think you would be interested in a book about the ‘Hearing Voices’ by Gail Hornstiein, Professor of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, USA, that was inspired by a jacket embroidered by the psychiatric patient Angnus Richter:

    The jacket is part of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn’s collection which is on permanent exhibition in a very special gallery in Heidelberg Germany:

    Some images of the Jacket can be seen here:

  2. Alan,
    I came across your work on fundit today. I felt very moved by what you are doing with this project and wanted to tell you about what I am doing ( be it still early days ) and wonder if perhaps there is some way my project would help yours !
    I am developing a digital story archive called Lifestor so people can express their life so this information is not lost, damaged or divided for there life fulfillment. I am very aware of the stories attached to the personal effects that are somewhat lost except for your interest. I am not sure what I am suggesting but if you are interested to chat sometime to see if something may come from it and keep this social history alive. Kind regards Geraldine OBrien

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