In Oregon for a wedding recently, Peter and I had a couple of days to play. Our usual modus operandi is to pick a place from which he can ride his bike and where I can find something interesting to sketch. Due to a bicycle malfunction we found ourselves in Salem at the only bike store for miles, which had a particular seat post. Salem has some nice old architecture downtown, which I could happily have sketched, but a quick google search revealed that there was a museum in an old mental hospital. That sounded too good to miss, especially because apparently it was where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed.
The museum was small but interesting. There were frightening medical artifacts but I didn’t get to sketch them. I became absorbed with the horrifying information about the history of diagnosis and the patients who were sent to the “asylum”. It didn’t take much back then – you could be committed by family members for reasons from alcoholism to “crying too much”. A large percentage of the patients were Native Americans.
Ken Kesey’s book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, written in 1962, was based on this institution and is a devastatingly honest portrayal of the boundaries between sanity and madness. Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict and unbending routine, unopposed by her patients, who remain cowed by mind-numbing medication and the threat of electric shock therapy. Until McMurphy arrives….
In the movie, which was filmed in the hospital in 1975, McMurphy was played by the young Jack Nicholson, who went on to a career of playing characters who exist on the edge of crazy.
Now we come to the serendipity part of this post: Several years ago some friends gave me their spare copy of a large photographic book called Library of Dust by David Maisel. It is a beautiful thing, full of large beautiful images of copper canisters containing the ashes of the unclaimed dead at an old hospital. I hadn’t looked at the book for years, but the images stayed with me.
On a video screen in an easy to-miss back room in the museum I found David Maisel talking about his project photographing the canisters. This was the place!
In 2004 the hospital superintendent revealed the existence of a room containing thousands of canisters that held the cremated remains of unclaimed bodies of patients who had died at the hospital between 1914 and 1971. The discovery of this “Room of Forgotten Souls” provoked outrage in the Oregon Legislature and the room grew to symbolize the inhumane treatment of patients in state-run psychiatric hospitals.
The Oregonian newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its editorials on the subject in 2006. It was this coverage that attracted Maisel’s attention. Best known for his large-scale aerial photographs of sites that have undergone massive environmental transformations, including copper mines, he was interested in the patterns and colors in the corrosion on the copper urns. He spent weeks in the room in the old hospital crematorium, photographing the “lost souls”. Each canister contained a person, each was stamped with a number, and some had labels.
Photographs by David Maisel from his book Library of Dust
Library of Dust was published in 2008. Some of Maisel’s photographs were presented to the Oregon Senate in a successful attempt to secure funding to replace old psychiatric hospitals with new facilities, and to pay for a memorial to honor the unclaimed dead at Salem.
The old hospital buildings were demolished and a new 650-bed facility was opened in 2012, retaining the handsome red-brick front building, which houses the museum.
In 2014 a memorial was opened to honor the patients and to confront the facility’s dark history of mistreating the mentally ill. The ashes from the copper canisters have been transferred into new urns which are now set into a low metal wall enclosing a memorial garden. Each one is marked by a metal disc on which is etched the original canister number and the name and lifespan of the patient (made possible by old hospital records). The garden sits at the side of a small brick building that used to be part of the original crematorium. A wall has been removed and replaced with glass through which we can see the empty copper urns stacked on floor-ceiling shelving.
Every year people are claiming their relatives with the help of family history sites. As each urn is removed from the wall it is replaced with a hollow brass tube. The corresponding empty copper container also goes home with the patient. Small rings of corrosion can be seen on the metal shelves – little moments of joy to end an unhappy tale.