Freud Museum

In Historic Houses on December 6, 2011 at 12:03 am

Saturday afternoons really aren’t ideal for an abstract history of psychoanalysis, but when you’re working full time you have to be a bit flexible with your weekends…

I have been looking forward to visiting the Freud Museum for an age. My MA thesis looked at the history of mental health and illness museums, and although I visited as many museums covering the subject as I could, a somewhat ill-advised trip to Washington DC (ill-advised in terms of thesis deadlines, that is – on the whole it was an excellent trip) meant that I didn’t quite make it to 20 Maresfield Gardens this summer. With a visiting Psychologist as my guest this weekend, however, I felt now was the time to correct this oversight. Once again, as with the Wellcome (medical museums need to chillax, obviously) there is no photography allowed in the Freud Museum, so this will be a tad photo-lite, I’m afraid. It’s a shame, really – taking photos would have given our visit some sort of structure.

Freud’s London home is one of those lovely little house museums that remains in a very residential area – unlike the great stately homes of the aristocracy, it is nestled in an affluent corner of suburbia. There’s a big garden, but it in no way qualifies as a small estate. This was a huge spatial improvement on Freud’s former home, a Bergasse flat in Austria, but one suspects that he would much rather have stayed put. Unfortunately, the encroaching Nazi Party didn’t give him much choice in the matter in the late 1930s, and with the eventual annexation of Austria removing any possibility of staying, Freud fled to London with his family. He recreated his library-come-study in his new home, jam-packed with ancient objects d’art and artefacts from long-since-passed civilizations. He had a particular penchant for Egyptian archaeology, and would face his large collection of books and artefacts, whilst sat at the head of his famous analytical couch (out of sight of his patients).

That’s pretty much all you’ll learn, which for £6 a head isn’t much. That’s what the Freud Museum is really – not much of anything. There are small cards in each room with quotations or descriptions of dreams – it’s all very unclear. The infoboards are all cheap computer printouts (if you’re lucky enough to get one at all), and you learn nothing about the house itself. It is clear that the majority of Freud’s work was done elsewhere, and it was a much larger series of events beyond his control that deposited him in North London for the final year of his life. As this is the case, it feels rather hollow to focus (in the fuzziest way possible) on the main body of his work; whilst it is essential context, it is not the history of this house. That history is entirely absent, and I was left with many more questions about it after I left than when I went in. Who lived there before Freud? Were there servants? Did Freud teach or entertain here? Which patients did he see here? Why choose this house, relatively far out of London? Why London at all?

There’s also very little about Anna Freud here. Of course, Sigmund is the star of the show, but Anna has her own blue plaque on the front of the house, which leads you to expect a bit more than the occasional fleeting mention of her and her work in child psychoanalysis. Arguably, she did a lot more work in this house than her father (he was already dying of cancer when he arrived in 1938, and lived there for only a year). Anna is a real missed opportunity, in a series of missed opportunities.

There was an art installation in one room upstairs, something about Freud’s Oriental Rug collection by Anne Deguelle. Combined with such a mish-mash, unclear visitor experience, the art just felt like a really lazy way to fill a room. I admit I’m not usually an art fan, but as evidenced by things like Trust New Art and of course, the Enchanted Palace, art installations in museums and historic houses can work really well. This was just entirely the wrong place for a conceptual piece, and it came off as space filler. This one room of art seems to be a long-standing affair at the Freud – I really can’t imagine it being less appropriate, so perhaps some of the previous pieces have been better.

The staff were a disappointment also. I hate to criticize front-of-house people, because I know from experience that they do a difficult job, and everyone has an off day now an again. This was ridiculous, however. There was a security man on the front door, and a member of staff in the shop at the back of the house. I felt that there was no one to explain anything or address historical queries, in a museum that is in dire need of some explaining. Also, despite the fact that this is a very small museum, both staff kept following us at intimidatingly close quarters, locking up rooms and turning off lights a good 20 minutes before closing time. There’s no way we wouldn’t have been out of the house before 5pm, because so very little of it is on display. I know you want to go home, but we paid to visit what is essentially 6 rooms and we need more than 11 minutes to understand what (if anything) your weird interpretation is trying to say. It was unnecessary and downright rude, and if I had not felt unwelcome before, I certainly felt like a complete inconvenience when I left.

This all adds to an unbearably pretentious, inaccessible visitor experience. I won’t be returning to the Freud Museum in a hurry – I expect future studies will take me there, but only to use it as a case study of how the history of mental healthcare remains obtuse and alien in the few museums that relate to it. This is one of very, very few museums that cover this field of medical history. Most of the others are tiny, volunteer-run exhibitions with no budget and no clue, but they have enthusiasm in spades, and a real desire to educate. Both these things are missing from Freud’s House, and it’s a sorry visit as a result.


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