Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients
By Hunter Oatman-Stanford | Collectors Weekly
If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if youíd ever return to the life you knew before, what would you take with you?
That sobering question hovers like an apparition over each of the Willard Asylum suitcases. From the 1910s through the 1960s, many patients at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane left suitcases behind when they passed away, with nobody to claim them. Upon the centerís closure in 1995, employees found hundreds of these time capsules stored in a locked attic. Working with the New York State Museum, former Willard staffers were able to preserve the hidden cache of luggage as part of the museumís permanent collection.
hotographer Jon Crispin has long been drawn to the ghostly remains of abandoned psychiatric institutions. After learning of the Willard suitcases, Crispin sought the museumís permission to document each case and its contents. In 2011, Crispin completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund the first phase of the project, which he recently finished. Next spring, a selection of his photos will accompany the inaugural exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratoriumís new location.
Crispinís photographs restore a bit of dignity to the individuals who spent their lives within Willardís walls. Curiously, the identities of these patients are still concealed by the state of New York, denied even to living relatives. Each suitcase offers a glimpse into the life of a unique individual, living in an era when those with mental disorders and disabilities were not only stigmatized but also isolated from society.
(All photos by Jon Crispin.)
Collectors Weekly: How did you come across this collection?
Jon Crispin: Iíve worked as a freelance photographer my whole life. In addition to doing work for clients, Iíve always kept my eye out for projects that interest me. In the í80s, I came across some abandoned insane asylums in New York State, and thought, wow, Iíd really like to get in these buildings and photograph them.
So I applied for a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, got it, and spent a couple of years photographing the interiors and exteriors of these buildings. When the psychiatric programs moved out and shut things down, they basically just closed the doors and walked away. They left all kinds of amazing objects inside these buildings, including patient records in leather-bound volumes.
In the mid-í90s, I heard that at Willardóone of the asylums in which I spent a lot of time photographingóthe employees had saved all the patient suitcases that belonged to people who came to Willard and died there. Starting around 1910, they never threw them out.
Floydís empty suitcase.
Read the full article at: collectorsweekly.com
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