Willard Asylum Suitcase
I’m not sure yet where I am going with this project, but I wanted to post some shots for feedback. / In 1995, the New York State Museum staff were moving items out of The Willard Psychiatric Center. It was being closed by the State Office of Mental Health, and would eventually become a state run drug rehabilitation center. Craig Williams was made aware of an attic full of suitcases in the pathology lab building. The cases were put into storage when their owners were admitted to Willard, and since the facility was set up to help people with chronic mental illness, these folks never left.
The Museum made arrangements to have the suitcases moved to the Rotterdam storage facility, where staff have catalogued each one, and have carefully wrapped and preserved their contents.
An exhibit of a selection of the cases was produced by the Museum and was on display in Albany in 2003 or 2004. It has also traveled around New York State. It was very moving to read the stories of these people, and to see artifacts from their lives before they became residents of the Asylum.
This particular case belonged to Freda B…..(I would really like to use her whole name here, but there is a massive debate going on as to whether people who have been at Willard and other psyc centers need to be protected by privacy laws. I come down strongly on the side that it is dehumanizing and stigmatizing to pretend that she doesn’t have a surname.)
I am so interested in these cases. I like the idea of documenting the care and energy that the Museum has put into them. And I am totally wigged out by being able to photograph a representation of the lives of people who struggled so much to make it in a very stressful and confusing world.
It is still early days, and I am struggling a bit as to how I should approach this. The cases have been photographed before, but in a totally different manner. The first hurdle seems to be cleared; I have access. The next is time, which I think I can manage. The big one is funding, which is something on which I need to work. And finally, what could come out of the project. An exhibit would be nice, or maybe a book.
I have been working on some ideas with Dr Karen Miller, a writer and psychiatrist. She has also been spending time with the cases, and doing research on the lives of people who were at Willard. We’ll see what happens.
In the meantime, feel free to send this link around to anyone who might be interested. And any feedback would be appreciated.