Celebrating Diversity

The Madhouse

Museum Het Dolhuys, Haarlem (NL)

The first Dutch museum for psychiatry emerged from five historical collections of psychiatric hospitals in the Netherlands. When the Dutch National Health Service vacated the former lepers-, plague-, and madhouse in Haarlem, there was also a museum building.

Haarlem (NL)
Museum Het Dolhuys
2015, 2005
2500 m2
Concept, Spatial design, Graphic design
Nienke van den Berg (lead 2015), Robert van der Linde (lead 2005), Remco Swart, Julia Meyerrose, Sietske Sips
AV hardware
VHS bv
Carel van Hees
Sound productions
Het 5e kwartier
Content development
Stichting Pandora
Computer animations
Interior contractor
Background Designs
Peter van Beek
De Aanpak
What is normal and what is abnormal?

Already after the first brainstorms with specialists it became clear to us that the boundary between normal and abnormal is not always clear. One in four Dutch people need psychiatric assistance. What is crazy or normal differs per person, per culture and per time period. It was clear that only displaying the collection doesn’t do justice in any way to the complexity and urgency of the subject. A visit to the museum should be more about personal stories and individual encounters and less about objects.

“We wanted to use the fact that the building itself has had a psychiatric history for 700 years in our story. One way of connecting it to the story, was by applying text directly on the walls and doors.”

Robert van der Linde

Designer at KDJ

Different perspectives

The perspective of the narrative is very important for a subjective topic like psychiatry. Who is addressing the visitor? The psychiatrist, the patient, or the caregiver? Instead of an omniscient storyteller, we asked many people who have a connection to psychiatry to tell their story. These new ‘residents’ of the Dolhuys thus became the protagonists of the museum. The psychiatrists and caretakers were also given a voice.

What about you?

Everything in the museum is ‘real’, fragile, and intimate. The distance between yourself and the residents has been made as small as possible. You can unlock stories by opening doors, looking in drawers or ringing someone. You can also check your own mental health on a computer. You are constantly confronted with the question: how normal am I?


Psychiatry is about scars and imperfections. Together with the restoration architect, we agreed to leave as many visible imperfections in the building as possible. The overarching theme is that no one is perfect and that you cannot define what is normal. We have implemented that in our design everywhere, even in the cash register, the restaurant, and the toilets. From the furniture to the staff, everything and everyone is part of the experience. Everything feels a bit odd, and that’s totally normal.

“The labyrinth-like building is an important part of the exhibition experience. Also in your head you can wander around and get lost, so it fits the subject well here”.

Floris Mulder

curator Dolhuys


Europen Museum of the Year Awards 2007

Honourable mention

De Nederlandse Designprijzen 2005

Exhibition and experience design – Winner