HensolAn exhibition telling the stories of patients and staff of a former institution for people with learning disabilities is to launch at Swansea Museum. 

This is part of Hidden Now Heard, the first pan-Wales project of its kind, which will capture a hidden and often painful part of Wales’ history from 6 of Wales’ long-stay hospitals which closed in 2006.

The public will have their chance to hear the stories of 12 people and get a glimpse of what it was like to grow up and spend up to 40 years living in an institution. The exhibition, which opens on January 20 and will run for 6 weeks, has been interpreted using oral history interviews, recreating parts of the hospital and putting on display clips from 15 oral history interviews.

Mencap Cymru’s Hidden Now Heard project, which received a £292,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, has collected testimonies of people with a learning disability, their relatives and staff who spent time at the long-stay hospital Hensol Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan. The 3-year project will focus on 6-long stay hospitals in total with exhibitions happening across 6 regional museums.

The Hensol Exhibition aims to encourage the public to compare their lives today to the lives of the patients when the hospital was open from 1931 to 2003.

One of those taking part in the exhibition is Phyllis Jones, who was a patient at Hensol for some 40 years. She decided to take part because: “I wanted to tell everyone about Hensol, the good times and bad. They had good staff there but overall I didn’t like living there. I prefer living in my own house.”

Sue Goddard, a former ward sister from the hospital, was also involved: “I wanted to take part because it is important that people shouldn’t be forgotten. Hensol was home for lots of staff and patients.”

The project would also like to hear from former patients and staff from St David’s Hospital and Pantlgas Hospital in Carmarthenshire for an exhibition at Carmarthen Museum in April. People who would like to tell their story are encouraged to contact the team.

Paying tribute

Mencap Cymru director, Wayne Crocker, said: “I have been looking forward to this exhibition since we came up with the idea back in 2003. Mencap Cymru played a lead role in the closure of the long stay institutions in Wales under the banner of The Longest Waiting list. I am pleased the Hidden Now Heard exhibition will pay tribute to the many people with a learning disability who took part in this campaign and who have sadly now passed away. I very much hope that those who visit will be impressed by the stories they see but more importantly will see the amazing contributions people with a learning disability make to our communities in Wales.”

The idea for the project came about when Crocker realised that lots of former patients were passing away or beginning to suffer from memory issues and felt that if the stories weren’t recorded now the unique perspective of the patients would be lost forever.

Also on display are a number of historical documents, images and artefacts donated by staff and patients. If anyone has any more artefacts or stories to tell they are encouraged to contact the project team.

Paul Hunt, project manager of Mencap Cymru’s Hidden Now Heard added: “The project team often found it difficult to find staff and relatives of patients to come forward to share their stories, perhaps feeling unsure or a sense of shame about the hospital. 

“Whilst some of the practices and language used may seem unusual by today’s standards, the project team are keen for the public to judge the system in place at the time, rather than staff who often cared for people under great stresses.”