Jon Crispin's Notebook

The Changing Face of What is Normal, The Exploratorium

Posted in Jon Crispin, Willard Asylum, Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 02/05/2013

I finally got the chance to see the exhibit, and while I have a few quibbles, it is very exciting.

The space is situated very close to the front of the building.  There are basically three components.  On the left of this photograph (↑) is the Utica Crib display which deals with the idea of confinement.  To the right of that is the entrance to the “attic” where the cases are located, along with my photographs and Karen Miller’s poems.  And out the back is the interactive space where visitors can write about their feelings toward the exhibit and the ideas represented.

After entering the door ( top photo above) one enters the attic. (This is the core idea of the exhibit space.  Gordon Chen based his design on the room where the cases were rediscovered.  I think it mostly works, although I did hear several complaints about the lighting.  It does seem a bit on the dark side.  The wall to the right has nine 12 inch prints.  I  think they could have used more.  There seems to be a lot of empty space, and given that the cases are displayed in three levels it would make sense to me to have used more photos in this area.

This shot (↑) shows the relationship between the photographs  on the right and the actual cases on the left, which are placed behind chicken wire.  The wire is a bit distracting for me.  Viewed from a distance it works well, but when one gets close to the objects, it makes it difficult to read text and get a feeling for the items.  I would stress that this could be a problem only for me, since I have had such an intimate relationship with the contents of the suitcases while photographing them.  Others might not have any issue with this.  At the far end of this shot is one of the amazing 36 inch photographs that Alex Ross printed (they used six of these).  The idea of big prints has never really appealed to me in general, but I will say that they work really well in the space.  Behind that wall is a series of video monitors with different people talking about mental illness, and I heard many visitors found these interviews fascinating.

This view (↑) looks back toward the entrance and shows how the cases are displayed.  The hanging clipboards are Karen’s “then and now” diagnosis of the patients.  Several people told me that this was an extremely effective way to connect with the owners of the suitcases.  It is a simple concept that describes how the doctors at the time of admittance made a diagnosis, and how those same symptoms might be treated today.

Here is another one of Alex’s 36 inch prints, with cases on the right.

This view is toward the exit, and leads into the interactive space.

And this is the exit door looking back into the attic.

Visitors are encouraged to sit at tables and use small cards to answer questions like the one above.  Most of the answers are heartfelt and interesting, although some trolling is present.  What is especially touching to me is seeing comments in the handwriting of children.  I visited on two separate occasions, and I saw parents with their kids viewing the photographs and objects, and reading Karen’s poems.  This is an exhibit that is clearly provocative, although not in the negative sense at all. What it does, and was clearly intended to do, is open up dialogue about mental health issues.

Here’s another one of the questions.  The card on the right reads “My stuff toy Johnson”.

The Exploratorium folks thought it would be a good idea to print up some cards with my photos on the front and a snippet of one of Karen’s poems on the back.  These are beautiful and so far seem to be selling well.  I bought several sets and am excited to have them.

I have a few comments about the whole experience and am not really sure where to start.  But here goes.

The new Exploratorium is simply amazing.  It is a beautiful space with so much to see.  Keeping in mind their original charter as a hands-on learning environment, it is completely successful.  And the fact that they are now branching out into the social sciences and presenting more artistically orientated concepts is great.  Not only great, but brave and daring as well.  My first visit was on an extremely busy Sunday and the place was jammed.  As I lingered in the “Normal” space, I noticed some visitors were clearly not expecting to see something like it, and there were a few who were obviously put off by the whole idea.  I even heard one young kid use the word “awful” twice in one sentence.  And that is why I use the words brave and daring.  They are now doing everything a public museum should be doing by exposing visitors to concepts that are not always comfortable.  And I am honored to have been asked to play a small role in that process.

My second visit on Tuesday helped me to be objective about my involvement in the project.  I was able to talk to quite a few people and get some very positive feedback.  Early on, I accepted my role as an adjunct player in ” The Changing Face….”.  It was difficult at times as most of the decision making was out of my hands.  And there are still some elements of it that are at odds with my initial concept of what to do with the photographs. But as I move forward, I will be able to show the work at venues where I have much more control.  That said though, I am happy and excited by what the Exploratorium has done.  The photographs are being seen by a diverse audience and that is always a good thing.

So, big thanks to Pam Winfrey, Stephanie Bailey, Julie Nunn, and Stacy Martin who have all supported my involvement.  Please go see the new building and the exhibit, and I would really appreciate any feedback.

27 Responses

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  1. Colleen O'Brien said, on 02/05/2013 at 8:47 pm

    What is normal?? My son has autism and so in our family we refer to other kids his age as NT (neuro-typical) because having autism is ‘normal’ for Tom.

    I love that that kid in the museum said ‘awful’ – I only hope he realises how extremely lucky he is that his life has not been touched in any way by mental health issues – these days that makes him the ‘abnormal’ one 🙂

    • joncrispin said, on 03/05/2013 at 2:19 pm

      Colleen, thanks for your comment and best for your son. Jon

    • Deena Hoblit said, on 21/07/2013 at 2:10 am

      Normality is extremely relative and subjective if you don’t have a diagnosis. Even with my diagnosis I was unable to really conceive of the weight of that label until well into adulthood and only after seeing what that diagnosis had stolen from me. It’s funny, but most people would never use a racial slur in public, but they never think about calling people crazy. Think about how many times you’ve heard a specific diagnosis used as the punchline of a joke on tv. It’s considered socially acceptable because it’s also socially acceptable to look down on mental illness. It helps to solidify the stigma.

  2. Shane evans said, on 03/05/2013 at 2:15 am

    I really wish that this was coming to the uk. It would possibly start to open a lot of minds about how mental health issues affect everyone, not just those with it. Thank you Jon for bringing this exhibition to light for me.

    • joncrispin said, on 03/05/2013 at 2:18 pm

      Shane, thanks. If you have any ideas about venues in the UK, let me know. I am in the process of contacting museums and I would appreciate any suggestions. Best and thanks, Jon

  3. leamuse said, on 03/05/2013 at 7:41 am

    Reblogged this on poetry, photos and musings oh my!.

  4. […] The Changing Face Of What Is Normal, The Exploratorium. […]

  5. Sarah said, on 03/05/2013 at 2:14 pm

    I really want a peek at the then and now clipboards. My own family struggles with mental illness and my mother spent a lot of time in mental hospitals in the ’60s.

    • joncrispin said, on 03/05/2013 at 2:17 pm

      Sarah, Thanks for your comment. The clipboards are an interesting part of the exhibit. I am hoping the Exploratorium will do some sort of online presentation about “Normal”. You should write them and suggest that they do something like that, and I will mention it as well. I appreciate your interest. All best, jon

  6. headcasepress said, on 04/05/2013 at 11:11 am

    This is beautiful! Congratulations! Will the exhibit be traveling at all?

  7. Jane said, on 06/05/2013 at 5:18 am

    I work in the Mental Health field and have a saying I use to help put people who are uncomfortable with a diagnosis or struggle with the ‘normal’ concept. ” Normal is a cycle on a washing machine. It’s just a way of helping label others.” I am so thankful for the increasing awareness about Mental Health. Thank you Jon for your sensitivity and respect shown to each of these people and this small part of their lives.

  8. Stacey T said, on 07/05/2013 at 9:43 am

    How long will the exhibit be in San Francisco?

  9. jennyfurniss said, on 11/05/2013 at 7:18 pm

    I read the Slate article as well as this blog post and it left me wondering – was there any way to research the lives of some of the patients? On one hand, just seeing the objects and pics is moving, but on the other hand, giving them the context of people’s lives and perhaps some of the struggles that led to their stay at an asylum would also be fascinating. Esp. since the way we deal with mental health has changed so much. Also, any chance the exhibit will be touring out here on the West Coast? Would love to see it in person!

    • joncrispin said, on 14/05/2013 at 10:17 am

      Hi Jenny, Thanks for your note and question. I am working with a poet and psychiatrist who has access to the medical records of the patients. She is writing about their lives at Willard, and we will be collaborating. I am a bit torn as my main interest is in the objects and not so much the stories of the patients. I like the idea of viewers of my photos building their own stories of the lives of the people who lived at the institution. And we do hope the exhibit will tour. It will be in San Francisco for the whole year though, so maybe you could check it out. Best and thanks, Jon

  10. lmdm1965 said, on 12/05/2013 at 11:57 am

    I recently found out we had a great- aunt who was committed while still a child. She passed away ( from what we have gathered) around the age of fifteen or so. It has opened my eyes to our countries mental health issues, as well as countless questions as whom she was, her treatment and her death at such a young age. I live in the Bay Area and can’t wait to see your beautiful exhibit. Previously I wouldn’t have been so interested, yet after learning of our aunt I am now fascinated. Thanks so much.

  11. Yinzerella said, on 10/06/2013 at 2:35 pm

    If I were in SF in the next year, I’d definitely check out the exhibit. Fascinating stuff.

  12. Sher Fick said, on 11/06/2013 at 11:26 am

    Jon – I came across your documentary work via a Facebook post and am so excited to have found it. I created a show based on losing the stigma of mental health and although it was censored, it truly taught me so much. Sharing art on ‘provocative’ issues is so important and brave. I am wondering, is there a catalogue from the exhibit in the works? Do you plan on do further exhibitions with the photos themselves?

    • joncrispin said, on 13/06/2013 at 1:38 pm

      Sher, thanks for your interests. The Exploratorium did print a catalogue and it is available through the store. (I don’t know if they sell online, but you could call and ask to have one sent to you. They are only $15.00 and really nice. Best, Jon

  13. […] old suitcases that’s been found in the attic of an asylum, photographed by Jon Crispin and turned into an exhibition about mental health and people deemed too unwell to be allowed in society. Call me crazy but I find […]

  14. Deann said, on 13/06/2013 at 7:09 pm

    ugh, a year in CA? I only live about half an hour from Willard and really want to know when/if this exhibit will make it’s way back here? I’m already completely enamored with it and can feel how powerful it is just on my computer screen

    • joncrispin said, on 13/06/2013 at 8:18 pm

      Deann, there is an event at Willard on 29 June put on by the historical society. I will be speaking and showing photos along with Dr. Karen Miller. Please come if you can.

  15. Alisa said, on 02/08/2013 at 1:14 pm

    I finally got a chance to see the suitcase display yesterday but feel as torn about the overall presentation as you do, I think. I was very happy to see the objects close up; they are truly wonderful. I’m not sure the exhibit fully captures the dignity each person as an individual deserves–something that always shows in your photographs and in the texts you write yourself. I wish they had let you in a bit more. While I still feel the exhibit is important for the overall educational focus on mental health, I agree that the chicken wire is strange and distracting, that the stories without so much commentary would give the viewer some space to just feel what it going on rather than being told so much. This is always a problem when the curator has one vision and tries to shape everything to it. A sympathetic art space might be a good venue: I hope you will be able to curate your own show one day as you do here. I seemed to have missed your postcards! I will have to go back. The Exploratorium is marvelous in its new digs! Thanks for letting us join your journey.

    • joncrispin said, on 05/08/2013 at 9:45 am

      Alisa, thank you so much for your comment and for checking out the exhibit. I really appreciate your take on it, and am now looking ahead to opportunities where I have a bit more control. As you probably know, I am back shooting the cases and am beginning to feel a new sense of patience when it comes to the next step of sharing with the public. Right now I am happy to post online, but I am definitely thinking that there is so much more to do, and I am not quite ready to be distracted with thoughts of a book or more exhibits. I know it will come to that, but there is so much more work to do first. I am still blown away buy having access to the cases and getting to spend time photographing them. Best, and thanks again. Jon

  16. nitrocaphane said, on 13/09/2013 at 12:37 am

    Will you exhibit this in New York recently? I’ve been focusing on paintings about mental diseases for years however I heard about your work too late. Sincerely hope that I could have the chance to walk among them.

    • joncrispin said, on 16/09/2013 at 9:42 am

      Nitro, I have no immediate plans to exhibit in NY, but am working on it. Thanks for your interest. Jon


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