Rockwood Asylum featured in new exhibit at the Museum of Health Care

Custodial to Curative Care: Rockwood and the Evolution of Mental Health Treatment

The Museum of Health Care at Kingston has installed a new temporary exhibit, with Rockwood as the first subject.

Colloquially known as Rockwood, the city’s first psychiatric hospital has had many names over the years. With artifacts, panels, and even supplementary media links, this small exhibit provides a short overview of the hospital’s history from its beginning all the way to closure.

Says Curator Rowena McGowan, “We tried to tell a grounded story of Rockwood, without sensationalizing it but also without hiding the more difficult parts of its history. We find a lot of our visitors are really interested in Rockwood and we hope this new exhibit helps answer some of those burning questions.”

Nicholas Delva MD, FRCPC, served as a consultant for the exhibit, and has first hand experience working at Rockwood. “During my career in mental health, says Delva, I have seen many positive developments, including the development of new medications and other treatments, a stronger emphasis on the rights of patients, and more community-based care.  The transition from the well-established psychiatric hospital with a reasonable number of beds to the current patchwork of care has, however, not always been successful, and much effort will be required to meet the needs of the many patients who are currently underserved.”

While the exhibit is now open for viewing, visitors who are especially interested in Rockwood are encouraged to attend Doors Open Kingston on July 22 and August 26 for some extra insight into mental health treatment in Kingston. This annual event invites visitors to explore the many heritage sites in Kingston and this year at the Museum of Health Care will double as an opening for the new exhibit. Visitors will learn about the important role that food and farming played in mental health treatment of the nineteenth century and in the patient experience at Rockwood.

Why a temporary gallery? With nine galleries worth of exhibits, plus a children’s gallery, the Museum tells many stories from the history of healthcare, from nursing education to the importance of vaccination. However, the new temporary gallery will provide a far more flexible space, allowing the Museum to quickly swap exhibits in and out to better showcase more objects from the collection and agilely respond to new events and discoveries. The temporary gallery will also double as a community gallery, with the space sometimes offered to members of the community to tell their own stories.

This new exhibit and temporary gallery conversion were sponsored by the Paul Robertson Memorial Fund. The Museum of Health Care would like to thank Oyedeji Ayonrinde, Nicholas Delva, Ian Fraser, Janine Schweitzer, KAM, and Linda Reason, as well as the other staff at Providence Care, for their help in putting this exhibit together.

Custodial to Curative Care: Rockwood and the Evolution of Mental Health Treatment will be up for viewing for at least six months.

Nicholas Delva MD, FRCPC

I first worked at the Rockwood building in the summer of 1971, as an attendant on one of the long-stay wards. This gave me some understanding of the institutional psychiatric care of the era. I obtained my MD at Queen’s University in 1975 and completed my training in psychiatry in 1979.  As a resident from 1975-9, I spent much of my time on the Kingston Psychiatric Hospital/Beechgrove Children’s Centre property. This included taking call at all the sites, which included Rockwood, then called the L.S. Penrose Centre, which had become a treatment facility for persons with developmental disabilities.   Since then, I have practiced general adult psychiatry, largely in an academic setting, involving clinical work, teaching, research, and administration.  I served as Psychiatrist-in-Chief at the Kingston Psychiatric Hospital from 1998 to 2001, during which time Rockwood was temporarily used to house refugees from Kosovo. I was the Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University/Chief of the Department of Psychiatry, Capital District Health Authority from 2006 to 2016.  In my administrative positions I was able to encourage the preservation of many artifacts and archival materials from the psychiatric hospitals in Kingston and the greater Halifax areas.  Many of these items are in the Museum of Health Care!  I currently work with assertive community treatment teams at Addictions and Mental Health Services – Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington.

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