Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY. 

Last Friday evening I attended the grand opening of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History in Buffalo, New York.  After 126 years of operation as a state mental health hospital in Upstate New York, the Willard Psychiatric Center closed its doors in 1995.  The discovery of over 400 suitcases and trunks in the attic have provided unprecedented insight into the lives of mental health patients in the early twentieth century. The exhibit is based on the book of the same title by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.  I highly recommend both.

Haunting, riveting, and heartbreaking, seem insufficient words to describe the stories told through the contents of baggage left behind in the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center.  It did not come as a surprise that most of the suitcase owners were admitted to the facility against their will.  The revelations lay in the lives they had before that fateful day. Some of the patients came from well to do families, some from the military, and some were just hard working folks.  Photos and other mementos found among their belongings indicated good times with loved ones, talents and skills that were abandoned with their luggage upon admission, and important vocations that involved helping others or serving their country.  

Case files reported many reasons for commitment to the Willard Asylum, like anger management and mild paranoia.  Often patient interviews were not indicative of serious mental illness by modern standards, although the diagnosis dementia praecox, later called schizophrenia, was used often.  Patient records told of personal tragedies in the past that were not considered in the diagnosis or treatment of the individuals being evaluated.  Their physical ailments were often dismissed as hypochondria and their emotional needs were simply not considered.

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic at the Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY.

Many of the suitcase owners lived out the remaining decades of their lives at the hospital, subject to what we now deem appalling treatment.  Some patients accepted their fate without question, others argued tirelessly for their release.  A few managed to carve out a niche for themselves, or maintained contact with friends and family outside of the hospital.  However, when they passed, many were completely forgotten.  If it were not for the objects they left behind in that dusty attic, we would never have known who they were before they became patients.

 The Museum of disABILITY History, a project of People, Inc., is dedicated to advancing the understanding, acceptance and independence of people with disabilities.  Bringing this exhibit to Buffalo is part of their commitment to illuminating over a century of forgotten history.  Poorhouses, insane asylums, workhouses and orphanages were established throughout the United States during the nineteenth century to meet the growing needs of an impoverished urban population.  These institutions ultimately were unable to accomplish their goals and many ceased to exist or transitioned into modern institutions like elder care facilities.  Many people ended up losing their battle for survival in the very asylums that were supposed to help ease their suffering.  Those pour souls, for the most part, were buried in unmarked graves, their plight long forgotten by the modern world.  In addition to the Willard exhibit, the museum boasts the Monument for the Forgotten, which commemorates the individuals who lived and died in institutions around Western New York and Almshouses and Schools, which focuses on the evolution of care for people with disabilities and the development of early poorhouses and schools.  If you are local, I highly recommend a visit.  If not, check out their Virtual Museum.  Either way, you won't be disappointed.

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