restricted access Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health (review)
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Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health. 2600 Center St NE, Salem, Oregon 97301. Phone: (503) 945-2800.

When the Oregon State Hospital opened in 1883, it was on the cutting edge of mental health treatment. Designed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, famous for his theories on moral therapy, every window had a tranquil outdoor view to uplift patients' spirits. But by 2000, the buildings had fallen into disrepair and the population had changed. Instead of patients being mostly committed by relatives, the majority were "forensic patients," more commonly called the criminally insane. They had few visitors. "This was like the forgotten hospital," museum director Kathryn Dysart said as she showed me around the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health.

The catalyst for change came in 2004, when two Oregonian reporters and state senator Peter Courtney toured the hospital. They glimpsed a basement room full of thousands of numbered copper canisters. The senator was horrified to learn this was a storage room for the unclaimed cremains of 3,500 Oregon citizens. The reporters sensed a big story. Their attention to the hospital resulted in a massive overhaul of the facility, many cremains being sent to living descendants, and plans for a fascinating new museum in part of the original Kirkbride building.

In the early 1880s, the private Hawthorne Asylum in Portland was Oregon's main place for mentally ill patients. "There started to be a conversation that the state has responsibility to care for indigent mentally ill people," Dysart said. Once the new public hospital opened, three hundred Hawthorne Asylum patients were put on a train and sent to Salem. In addition to receiving mental health therapy, patients farmed and worked in vocational shops. They raised chickens and grew enough fruits and vegetables to be self-supporting and to supply the state prison and universities with produce. Patients built furniture and made everything from saddles to jigsaw puzzles. Female patients working in the textile shop produced linens, sausage bags, and even strait jackets for inhouse use. The population peaked in the 1950s at about 3,000. Basically a small town within Salem, the hospital campus swelled to sixty buildings, each one with a basement.

As modes of treatment and recreational fads changed over the decades, staff stuffed the basements with junk. By the year 2000, more than a century's worth of junk was what historians call precious artifacts. With such a wealth of [End Page 363] artifacts to choose from, the museum has been able to design fantastic displays for its eight rooms. Curator Megan Lallier Barron, the only full-time employee, and board member Tony Zandol, who is also a theater technical director and set designer, create the exhibits together.

The treatment room includes apparatus from different eras in mental health treatment. Some are relatively benign. This being Oregon, there is a bulky light with colored gels for treating what is now called seasonal affective disorder. A beauty display represents the ascent of cosmotherapy, from 1952-1954, when therapists explored the idea that mental health could be improved by a manicure or a better brow arch. Some displays are more sinister, at least to modern eyes, such as a set of lobotomy tools, syringes to administer insulin shocks, and a diagnostic machine that measured erections on sexual deviants. Visitors can enter a typical pre-1930s ward room to see where patients slept. The occupational therapy room displays equipment patients used in vocational programs—such as the pedal-powered Theracycle for making jigsaw puzzles and cutting boards—and productivity lists from different years (for example, 2000 fly swatters made in 1953 and $240,000 worth of food products grown on the hospital farm from 1916-18). As museum staff sort through the wealth of artifacts, Dysart said, they have had difficulties figuring out what many items were used for. Sometimes they crowdsource answers from fellow history buffs on Facebook.

One popular exhibit commemorates the 1973 filming of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Then-superintendent Dean Brooks required the filmmakers to involve as many patients as possible, and many appear in the movie as extras. Actors lived in empty wards...