Willard Asylum New York State
I found out about this through the wonderful mixed media grapevine - Michelle Ward told Lynne Perrella who e-mailed me about it. All photos are by Jon Crispin, who I ran across several years ago when I found his series of photos depicting old asylums. The quotes are from an article by Hunter Oatman-Stanford that appeared on Collectors Weekly last November.
If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if you’d 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 center’s 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 museum’s permanent collection.
Crispin has long been drawn to the ghostly remains of abandoned psychiatric institutions. After learning of the Willard suitcases, Crispin sought the museum’s 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 Exploratorium’s new location.
Crispin’s photographs restore a bit of dignity to the individuals who spent their lives within Willard’s 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.
Jon Crispin: I’ve worked as a freelance photographer my whole life. In addition to doing work for clients, I’ve always kept my eye out for projects that interest me. In the ’80s, I came across some abandoned insane asylums in New York State, and thought, wow, I’d 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-’90s, I heard that at Willard—one of the asylums in which I spent a lot of time photographing—the 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.
Craig Williams at the New York State Museum fights an ongoing battle to bring objects like these into the collection, and that’s what happened. Willard was being closed as a psych center and converted to a treatment facility for criminals with drug problems. So the New York State Museum received this collection of suitcases, and displayed a few of the cases in 2004. I asked Craig if I could photograph these things, and he said, “Go right ahead.”
Initially, my idea was to pair the suitcase photographs with some indication of why these people were in Willard. As the project evolved, I found I wasn’t that interested in such a literal connection. The suitcases themselves tell me everything I want to know about these people. I don’t really care if they were psychotic; I care that this woman did beautiful needlework. I’m much more interested in the objects themselves and what people thought was important to have with them when they were sent away.
There are still empty cases that I haven’t photographed, but even those are interesting to me just as suitcases, and there’s a whole group of people that love old suitcases. I think one of the reasons the project has been so successful is because it appeals to people in very different areas. It appeals to people who had family members in psych centers or who worked in psych centers or who are interested in old Greek-revival architecture. I was posting a lot on my blog, and I got messages from people interested in fabric or needlepoint and ephemera like toothpaste tubes and stuff from the ’20s and ’30s that doesn’t exist anymore.
But every case was different; I was constantly blown away. It was very important to me not to carelessly rifle through these things and forget that they were somebody’s personal belongings. And I really have a lot of respect for these people as well as the nurses and doctors who worked at the facility. I came away from all of this and the asylum work I did in the ’80s thinking that the state was actually trying to help people. It wasn’t some hellhole where people were chained to the walls. They tried to help, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind.
I found the pictures and the story fascinating. There will be an upcoming photo exhibit at the new San Francisco Exploratorium.