A patient corridor inside the Oregon State Insane Asylum, circa 1905

Throughout the Oregon State Hospital’s 129-year history, its treatment of the mentally ill has often seemed like a kind of insanity itself. Established in 1883 as a therapeutic refuge to treat, among other things, pervasive illnesses such as alcoholism and venereal disease, the state-funded mental hospital slowly deteriorated into a dilapidated facility plagued by an ugly legacy of abusive human rights practices.

A Pulitzer Prize–winning series of Oregonian editorials exposed the contemporary wrongs and inspired officials to secure $458 million in state and federal funding. The money shored the crumbling walls and built a modern and humane mental health facility that reopened this spring. 

Now a team of historic preservation activists from Salem has also emerged to recognize and remember the hospital’s emblematic, if sometimes troubling, history. 

Their campaign began in 2007 when they successfully fought off the state’s plans to level the building. It continued with the creation of a museum, opening October 6, within the hospital. Curated and staffed entirely by volunteers—some of them former and current patients and staff—and funded exclusively by donations and grants, the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health finally gives the public a glimpse behind the walls. The collection includes artifacts from the hospital’s early days, when patients farmed the surrounding lands, to the era when patients were subjected to electroshock therapy and worse. 

“When you lose sites like these,” says Hazel Patton, a prominent member of the preservation team, “you don’t just lose a part of history, you lose the connectedness we have to the people in our past.” 

Next month, an admirable attempt to ensure that connection debuts in Salem. In the following pages, we offer an exclusive preview of what you will find. 

 

A ledger filled with the names of people invited to dances at the Oregon State Insane Asylum from 1900 to 1903, and sheet music used by the patients who played in the bands

 A CommUnity of Healing

When it opened in 1883 as the Oregon State Insane Asylum, the state hospital bore little resemblance to the virtual prison it later became. Hospital life centered on the long halls of the Kirkbride building, named after 19th-century psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride, whose beliefs in “moral treatment” influenced its design. Kirkbride held that patients were best cared for in serene, natural environments removed from the bustle of modern life, and the hospital’s setting on bucolic grounds near the outskirts of Salem reflected those values. Inside, its experts treated mostly voluntary patients suffering from a stunning range of ailments—sunstroke, alcoholism, epilepsy, and depression. Meals featured produce and livestock raised on the hospital’s farms, which were tended by patients as a work component of their therapy. Art, sewing, and music also were used as therapies. The public was even regularly invited to dances where patients played live music.

 

 

 BOUND FOR CHANGE 

As the 20th century progressed and psychiatric care evolved, so did the hospital’s mandate and its approach to care. The discovery of penicillin in 1928 thinned the ranks of brain-ravaged victims of venereal disease. Instead of treating self-hospitalized patients with a range of mostly mild ailments, the hospital focused on debilitating conditions such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. By the 1980s, it housed a dramatically larger population of forensic patients—those whose mental illness caused them to be a danger to themselves or others, who required treatment before they could be tried, or who were deemed unfit for trial by reason of insanity. The treatment methods, however cutting-edge for their time, weren’t always humane, as witnessed by the items—like this straitjacket from the early 20th century—that piled up in the hospital’s basement rooms and underground tunnels. Over the decades, some of these relics were squirreled away by staff who believed them to be an important part of the hospital’s historic record. Kylie Pine, the museum’s volunteer curator, worked with a handful of volunteers over the course of two years to sort through the vast collection, eventually cataloging more than 4,000 objects, many of which will be on display in the museum. “These objects make the history of mental health treatment a little dirtier and a little more real,” Pine says.   

 

 

The Film That Changed Everything

One room of the museum will be devoted to the 1974 filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Academy Award–winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel. Among the souvenirs on display: this TV, used in the scene when protagonist and antihero Randle McMurphy announces an imaginary baseball game; patient Billy’s prosthetic neck, a prop from his suicide scene; and the director’s chair given to then-administrator Dean K. Brooks by producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas. The well-respected Brooks encouraged the hospital to work with the filmmakers, even appearing in the film as Dr. Spivey, the hospital superintendent. “The film’s legacy was to start the public conversation about how we are treating people within every institution we create,” says Dennie Brooks, Brooks’s daughter and a museum board member. 


 

The restored Kirkbride building, part of the $458 million Replacement Project, will house the museum.

 A Modern Approach

Since the 1970s, antidepressants and antipsychotics have flooded the pharmaceutical market, drastically altering how and where mental illness is treated. The changing techniques—along with a landmark 1974 court case that made involuntary confinement more difficult to impose, and cutbacks in funding for mental illness treatment made during the Reagan administration—dramatically shrunk the ranks of patients receiving care at the Oregon State Hospital, from roughly 3,500 in 1958 to roughly 500 in 1977. But criticism of the hospital continued into the 21st century with startling public revelations about the facility’s deteriorating buildings, patients being housed in packed rooms, and the existence of more than 3,500 unclaimed cremated remains of former patients. In 2008, the Oregon Legislature authorized the $458 million Oregon State Hospital Replacement Project. In March, the final wing of a modern psychiatric facility opened. The new 620-bed hospital takes a community approach to mental health with its use of “treatment malls,” communal spaces that recall the hospital’s early days by offering such programs as yoga, horticulture, cooking lessons, life skills management, and art therapy, as well as more traditional treatment methods like psychotherapy. “People can have a full recovery and live their lives in their home communities,” says hospital superintendent Greg Roberts. “But they have to have hope, and choice in how they are treated is a major part of that process.” The OSH museum helps the public understand that process by including a facsimile of a current patient room and details about life in the hospital’s new treatment mall.  

  

 

A 1940s-era microphone used in the hospital's PA system

 telling stories

The museum makes its home in a prime 2,500-square-foot space at the front of the hospital’s historic Kirkbride building. (A separate project, designed by the Seattle-based design firm Lead Pencil, will memorialize the cremated patients. It will incorporate an outbuilding, once a paint shop and infirmary.) Within the museum, visitors can learn how to retrieve the cremated remains of deceased family members, or visit the “contemplation space.” Here, inside a five-foot-by-six-foot sound booth, former patients, staff, and family members can record their own stories and memories of the hospital, providing the public with an archived, permanent, unsanitized view of the hospital. “We want to give equal voice to multiple experiences,” says curator Pine. “We’re not out here to tell the story of the state hospital.”