Museums are for winners: Oregon State Hospital Museum

My dad is an internet surfer extraordinaire.  I think he checks about six or seven different news sites a day in the interest of impartiality, and along the way, he clicks on any link that mentions the bizarre, the unexplainable, the odd, and the fascinating.   So, a couple months back he stumbled across a link to a museum that opened just this past October.  Since the article contained mentions of psychiatric wards, mental patients, and the like, he sent it my way thinking I would be interested.

Um, hell yes.

So, over winter vacation, my parents and I set out on Highway 101 to Salem to visit the Oregon State Hospital Museum.  (Side note: It is so great to have parents who can get behind my academic interests without grumbling.   Pretty much, they both love any outing that ends with learning something new.  And my mother has particular interests in the evolution and history of health care.)

None of us knew that much about the museum going in.  We were aware that this was the institution where One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed…and that was about it.  Personally, I was afraid that the exhibits might overplay the connection to Hollywood, and forget about more traditional sorts of displays on instrumentation, patient population, treatment programs, etc.

Fears = unfounded.  This place is the shiz.

IMG_4960Back-story:  By 2005, the OSH wards had fallen into disrepair and serial asbestos violations. Rick Attig and Doug Bates were attracted to the history (and possible future) of the forgotten asylum, and together they wrote a series of Pulitzer winning editorials, which brought the site to the attention of the Oregon State Senate.  In 2007, the Oregon Legislative Assembly called for the demolition of the original OSH and construction of a brand new psychiatric institution, with 620 patient beds, on the site.  During excavation in 2008, however, awesome stuff kept popping up. The Oregon State Department of Human Resources authorized a steering committee to figure out what to do with all the artifacts–patient belongings, doctors’ records, toys, instruments, etc.  And this board of tenacious and resolute historians, volunteers, former patients, and the like, decided a museum was the only appropriate response. They argued it could be housed in the front buildings of the original OSH if only they might be restored instead of leveled.  That was 2009.  And in October of 2012, a fabulous museum opened in the newly registered historic landmark


So, what I got to see this December, was a brand new museum.  The unassuming woman at the front desk, who (I found out from someone else) actually sounded the clarion call for the restoration project and spear-headed the whole effort, told me that about 90% of what they found in excavation is still in storage.  Reason being, the space they were allocated is relatively small.  Still, it took me about four hours to walk through it and read all the placards and watch all the videos, and I will probably find things I missed when I go back for a visit.

And good god, this is a fascinating little museum.  The exhibits are divided between three categories:  traditional historical findings; the filming of Cuckoo’s Nest; the photographic essay project based on discovered cremains.  All three categories center on the need to accurately and respectfully display patient stories and identities.

Given my project this last semester, working with all the patient letters from Holloway Sanatorium, I about had a nerd freak out two seconds after signing the register and reading the mission statement.  I managed to keep my cool until I rounded the corner and saw this:

I die…

Opening the traditional exhibits in the museum are these magnificent, large scale excerpts from the hospital’s annual reports.  They’re definitely set up for public consumption–the dates of these excerpts aren’t included, and they hone in on the more familiar and spectacular.  One charts lists the types of aggressive psychoses and personality disorders, one shows how the majority of patients were forensic cases (criminal), and one shows the number of seemingly normal occupations the inmates worked before they presented with mental illness (serial killers are among us!).  But they’re still wonderful pieces of history, showing the gendered components of illness, treatment, and recovery.

And in the rest of the museum, for every display on lobotomy, electro-shock therapy, and straight-jackets, there is a corresponding display on the everyday articulations of life in the hospital.  For instance, one room showed the evolution of occupational and recreational therapy.  Another talked about the arts and crafts the patients constructed, the shows they produced, the music they performed, and the books they read.  And old fashioned phones strategically placed throughout the exhibit let you listen to the voices of doctors and patients as they read from case studies or discuss their time in the hospital.

So, really, the curators use their hook wisely.  Once they grab your attention, they sneak in everything from recipe cards, to staff photos from the 1800s, to original blueprints and charters.

They did the same thing with the Cuckoo’s Nest exhibit.  Holy crap, Jack Nicholson, right?  And then as soon as you get over the fact that you can see some items from the set, including Chief Bromden’s broom, and watch a documentary on the making of the film, you start to realize that you’re actually surrounded by an incredibly poignant exhibit that discusses, above all, the social and cultural meaning of the film, the affect it had on the actors, and the lasting impact it made on the 90+ patients who worked behind the scenes and as extras.

Here is a reflection from Dr. Dean Brooks, the superintendent of the hospital during the time of filming, who had to defend his decision to allow the filming at OSH:

Dean Brooks

Another reflection, this time from the screenwriter, Bo Goldman, discusses how the film gives voice to those people who feel voiceless:

Bo Goldman

And a final consideration from director Milos Foreman hints at the way social necessities often turn into social controls:


The display on the film, then, managed to be both beautiful and spooky, campy and thought-provoking.  It was absolutely wonderful.

Finally, and I think most strikingly, the museum discusses the discovery and subsequent treatment of over 3500 canisters of ashen, human remains.

Attig and Bates were the first to stumble across the brick shed that housed the cremains when they did their 2005 editorials.  The cremains sat in copper canisters, three rows deep, on floor to ceiling shelves in a shed located on grounds about a hundred yards out from the main entrance of the hospital.  A pithy wooden desk stood guard in the center of the main room where attendants signed people in to their final resting place, relegated at first to the main shed, and later to an addition as the number of unclaimed persons grew.  Like the grave of the unknown soldier.  But instead of being illuminated by light and honor, these people were stigmatized by mental illness and poured into copper, numerically labelled final resting places, and then set away to, literally, erode.

The above photo is exclusively the work of David Maisel, who attempted to give positive meaning to this categorical and cruel forgetfulness–to restore some patient humanity.  He published Library of Dust, an astonishing photo essay of the cremains, calling the most beautiful people forward to sit for their cylindrical portraits.  As he puts it:

The room housing these canisters is an attempt for order, categorization, and rationality to be imposed upon randomness, chaos, and the irrational. The canisters, however, insistently and continually change their form over time; they are chemical and alchemical sites of transformation, both organic and mineralogical, living and dead. The Library of Dust describes this labyrinth, and in doing so, gives form to the forgotten.

So, in other words, Maisel focused on rescuing the cremains from a dilapidated shed, where death was given an infrastructural meaning, and exposing them, with their mischievous personalities and chaotic beauty, to the light.  Something about the corrosion on the canisters, which was only possible because of the chemicals contained in the human body, really does speak to the possibility of an afterlife–a new form.  And I have to say I much prefer the random to the shelved.

As a result of Maisel’s project, 120 people have found more permanent final resting places.  After he finished with his photography, experts carefully slid the canisters into plastic bags, inserted them into tagged black boxes, and set them once again onto shelves, but this time in a more carefully controlled environment.  And the resulting record catalog allowed family members to search for their relatives and retrieve the canisters, plan memorials, and, in some cases, lay people to rest in the plots that have been waiting for them for over a hundred years.

Unfortunately, the project also resulted in a ginormous grant from the Oregon Arts Council, the members of which want to remove the ashes from the canisters, pour them into stainless steel tubes, and then stick them into the walls of the original shed, which is under restoration right now.  The original copper canisters, then, would go on display as an art piece.

I say, unfortunately, because I think it is totally bogus to deny the patients what has been their resting place for years, or even decades.  The canisters wouldn’t even be an art piece were it not for the corrosive, etching power of the ashes.  And I personally feel that taking away the patients’ last work of art, their last exhibition of respective individuality, is just a crime.

I’m probably going to write an angry letter…

I am also going to go back and revisit this museum as soon as I can.  After I chatted with the woman at the front desk, and the volunteer guarding the book of cremain records, I discovered that we all three share a nearly compulsive interest in helping to restore patient identity and life.  Sort of taking history by the hand and saying, come on, you can do it, let’s hear your voice.  They asked me if I would ever want to volunteer my time at the museum, and after I said, dear god yes let me at it, spilled my credentials, and told them I want to teach in Oregon, they said, “Oh…you’re ours.”

I so am.

So should everyone else be.  Go see this place.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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