What's inside Bengaluru's Nimhans mental health museum?

It chronologically takes you through the development of the 'lunatic asylum' from as far back as 1847 to present day

Boyle's apparatus used for giving anaesthesia from the 1940s is in the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bengaluru. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

From the outside, Bengaluru's mental health museum in India is located in a modest-looking heritage building within the campus of the world-renowned National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences. But inside, with its chequered black and white flooring and antique solid wood furniture that gives it a spartan feel, there's a rich history that traces the evolution of mental health studies as well as specialised care for people with mental illness, dating as far back as 1847.

Through seven zones, the Nimhans Heritage Museum chronologically takes you through the development of the "lunatic asylum" to the present day, alongside explaining its role as an institute of national importance. The layout is simple, with large infographic boards on the walls revealing interesting tidbits of humankind's journey in the mental health arena. The Goldstein-Scheerer Tests of Abstract and Concrete Thinking, for example, was developed in 1941 to examine the investigating capacity of abstract thinking and categorisation.

Elsewhere, there is a smattering of equipment, many ensconced in large glass cases. The Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale research tool, for instance, measures abilities in seven categories including reasoning, memory, social intelligence, conceptual numerical reasoning and visual motors. There's also a pressure transducer that was used in anesthesia machines for safety reasons.

An ultramicrotome, right, displayed at Nimhans museum. The instrument is used to prepare thin slices of material for study under a microscope. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

The museum's story begins with the establishment of a facility called the Lunatic Asylum in Bangalore, the old name of the city, in 1847, as an addition to the Hospital for Peons, Paupers and Soldiers. Dr Charles Irving Smith, a medical officer in the East India Company and surgeon to the Mysore Commission, convinced Sir Mark Cubbon, British Commissioner, to create the facility.

The asylum was renamed as the Mysore Government Mental Hospital in 1925 as the then-ruling king was keen on providing patients with mental illness a more conducive atmosphere for faster recovery. He approved a plan for the new hospital at the current site, with Dr Frank Noronha appointed as the first superintendent of the mental hospital.

Nimhans director Pratima Murthy and professor of psychiatry Sanjeev Jain were two of the key people involved in setting up the museum. “The need to document the growth of mental health services in the country and the state, and how mental health evolved to look at the brain and the mind was the initial idea behind this space," Murthy says. "We wanted to look at chronic mental illness firstly, and then we realised the need to look at the disease of the brain.

The museum has records and registers from as far back as 1870. Photo: Bindu Gopal Rao

"One of the exhibits shows how diseases of the brain can interfere with psychological freedom. This led to ways of helping people with chronic disease and that evolved into looking at neurological disorders, and all the research that went into understanding the brain in health and in disease,” she explains.

"We wanted to use this space as an area to archive records for improving scientific knowledge as well as trace the evolution of mental health in the country," Jain says. "We have records and registers from 1870 and while they may not be directly accessed by the public, [they] detail the evolution of mental wellness. This can help students in neurosciences and has helped those doing their PhD in historic archives.

"Our public showcase will keep changing as we have many exhibits, but cannot display everything due to paucity of space," he says.

Several audiovisual touchscreen panels are also part of the space. Considering that Nimhans is an organisation of international repute, the infographic on research initiatives, technological and service innovations, and products under development – such as a deep brain stimulator and patient warming device – add to the museum's appeal.

The Nimhans campus is also home to more than 75 species of herbs, including of the medicinal variety known to aid in the cure of specific neurological and mental conditions.

"We hope to have a virtual space where people can understand imaging, how the brain sends messages signals from one part to another and how electrical signals change into thought," says Dr TS Jaisoorya, additional professor of psychiatry and faculty-in-charge of the museum. "Our vision for the future is to expand this into a museum of the brain and mind, and get young people interested in their workings."

Entry to the Nimhans Heritage Museum is free. More information is available at nimhans.ac.in/heritage-museum-nimhans

Updated: December 14th 2021, 4:15 AM