Art meets asylum

One-time interior of the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, a former asylum and site of filming for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

Words like “asylum” send a shiver down my spine. So do musicals laced with “lunatics” and movies featuring straightjackets. But all are part of our history when it comes to mental illness.

Less than 100 years ago, folks could send a postcard picturing the Oregon State Insane Asylum. Today the Oregon State Hospital, the “primary state-run psychiatric facility for adults,” is developing an Oregon State Hospital Museum that’ll house artifacts related to early attitudes towards and treatment of those living with mental illness. It’s scheduled to open this fall.

“During the early days of mental health treatment, asylums often restrained people who had mental illnesses with iron chains and shackles around their   ankles and wrists,” according to Mental Health America — which called for an end to the practice during the early 1950s.

They melted shackles in April of 1956 at the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore — recasting them into “a sign of hope” dubbed the “Mental Health Bell.” It’s inscribed with these words: Cast from shackles which bound them, this bell shall ring out hope for the mentally ill and victory over mental illness.

I remember that bell each time I see a work of art that stereotypes or stigmatizes people with mental illness. Touring a museum filled with remnants of cruelty isn’t my idea of fun, and yet such museums are necessary — as are museums recounting the horrors of the Holocaust. We forget too easily what’s not set before us.

The Baillie Henderson Hospital, established in Australia in 1890, established their own Mental Health Museum in 1990, noting its “mixed fortunes” even as it began work in recent years to “bring back to life the rich story of the experiences of mental health patients and carers” who spent time there.

The Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri appears to have fared better than similar museums, making it onto a list of “one of the 50 most unusual Museums in the country.” Its founder, George Glore, hoped the museum’s collections would reduce stigma, so let’s hope people aren’t flocking there merely to indulge in the oddities of early mental health treatments.

The Glore Psychiatric Museum opened in 1874 with 25 patients, but reports that there were nearly 3,000 patients during the early 1950s after those with tuberculosis, syphillis, alcoholism and other conditions were admitted as well. It started at the one-time State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 but is now housed in another building on those grounds — which is the site of a new facility.

Remember, when you’re producing works of visual or performance art that feed into stereotypes of people living with mental illness, that there are family members, friends, colleagues and classmates among you for whom such things are no laughing matter. I don’t want to squelch your art — only encourage you to have a little heart.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read a “Booster Shots” blog post by Jeannine Stein for the Los Angeles Times — citing a study showing that 1 in 5 Americans experienced a mental illness in 2010 (and that 5% of Americans had a serious mental illness in 2010). Click here to learn more about MHA, the Mental Health Bell and resources for people living with mental illness.

Coming up: Mothers making the journey home, A new twist on “Alice”


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