Exploratorium hosts unusual exhibit on mental illness

The Exploratorium is expanding into new territory with a growing number of exhibits that focus on how people feel, think and interact.
December 13, 2013 9:07:05 PM PST
San Francisco's Exploratorium is expanding into new territory with a growing number of exhibits that focus on how people feel, think and interact. That new genre includes a temporary installation called "The Changing Face of What is Normal."

Curator Pamela Winfrey says the core of the exhibition is a group of objects discovered in the attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center in New York. The objects are now on loan to the Exploratorium, providing a rare glimpse into the lives of psychiatric patients over the last hundred years. All the items are things patients brought with them when they were admitted to Willard. When they moved or passed away, whatever they left behind was carefully packed up and stored in the attic. When the hospital finally closed in 1995, there were more than 400 suitcases and trunks there. Former employees wrapped them up and turned them over to the New York State museum.

A couple of years ago, photographer Jon Crispin launched an online Kickstarter campaign to raise money to take pictures of the objects. "It's almost as if it were a time capsule that was put away and forgotten about" Crispin said. The campaign brought in $18,000, more than double Crispin's goal. Now his photographs are part of the Exploratorium exhibit. He hopes they tell "a story both about the time that the patients lived and the things they chose to bring with them."

Another collaborator on the exhibit was Karen Miller, a psychiatrist and poet, who examined the Willard treasures, along with the patients' clinical records. Miller wrote poems using the patients' own words and did comparisons between how patients were treated at Willard many decades ago and how they would likely be treated now. The patients' full names are not being disclosed to protect their privacy.

Miller showed ABC7 News a trunk and all the possessions of a nurse named Flora who was admitted in 1914. Back then, Flora was diagnosed with a condition known as dementia pre-cox. Miller says a careful look at Flora's records, using current knowledge of mental illness, indicates Flora did not have a psychotic illness. Miller believes Flora "had severe depression and she recovered at Willard, but she never left. She was admitted at about age 40 and lived to (age) 102. "

The team that created the exhibit told us the more they learned about the patients, the more they liked and identified with many of them. Winfrey hopes the objects will help visitors relate to the mentally ill and take away some of the stigma. She says this is a "way to get people to understand that it is not a "we-they" situation. It really is an "us" situation."

The Changing Face of Normal is on display at the Exploratorium through next summer.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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