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# Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Online exhibit reveals lives left behind
Posted by Grace

Until the 1960s, being institutionalized for psychiatric reasons was often a life sentence. Willard Asylum in Upstate New York, which opened in 1869, housed more than 50,000 patients during its operation, and nearly half of those died there.

After Willard Psychiatric Center, as it was later named, closed in 1995, staffers found hundreds of abandoned suitcases and trunks belonging to former residents. A state museum curator arranged to have the trove of trunks and artifacts moved to a warehouse, where Darby Penney and Peter Stastny encountered them in 1999. Along with a photographer, they selected a few of the suitcase owners to research, and the results became a major New York State Archives exhibit, now available to view online at www.suitcaseexhibit.org.

Using the contents of the trunks, including photographs, immigration papers, newspaper clippings and other ephemera, as starting points, Penney and Stastny were able to create comprehensive biographies of nine suitcase owners, which you can read on the Suitcase Exhibit Web site. The profiles are deeply moving. Many of the stories of how the suitcase owners came to be institutionalized are shocking. One patient was committed because her employers described her as "odd, tactless and domineering."

"The Lives They Left Behind" exhibit is on display through Jan. 31, 2008, at the Science, Industry and Business Library in New York City. Visit the library’s Web site for more information. (The exhibit travels to Auburn, NY, and Flint, Mich., next year. Visit the Suitcase Exhibit Web site for details.) The accompanying book, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic, is being released in January.

P.S.: If you have an ancestor who was institutionalized, you might find our Now What? Blog post on finding records from state hospitals useful.


Museums | Social History
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 3:24:02 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #  Comments [1]
Tuesday, December 25, 2007 2:58:06 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)
A friend just sent me your fascinating article about the Willard Asylum in New York. I look forward to reading THE LIVES THEY LEFT BEHIND and to exploring the Suitcase Exhibit website in more detail. Years ago I read WOMEN OF THE ASYLUM by Jeffrey Geller and Maxine Harris, another interesting exploration of women's lives in American asylums, as part of my research for a play and a novel. My novel, WOMEN OF MAGDALENE (released this fall from Kunati Inc.) deals with the treatment of women in a post-Civil War Louisiana asylum. Thank you for your article about this haunting history.
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