As an ongoing effort to actively engage with history and with the work our peers are doing in cultural institutions around the state, the Oregon Historical Society’s museum services team has been fortunate to go on several “field trips” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Past trips have included visiting Abernethy Elementary School in Portland and learning about the restoration of a New Deal mural, “A Pageant of Oregon History”; visiting the Maryhill Museum of Art; and touring the Oregon State Hospital (OSH) Museum of Mental Health and OSH Memorial in October 2019.
Perhaps most famous for its role as the location of the film version of Oregon author Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Museum of Mental Health’s mission is to highlight the experiences of those who “lived and worked at Oregon’s psychiatric hospital by educating visitors, challenging stereotypes and stigma, and preserving the historic record.” The museum opened to the public in 2012 as a private, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, housed in the oldest building on the OSH campus in Salem.
Founded in 1883, OSH (then called the State Insane Asylum) was the custodian of thousands of patients suffering from “mental health” struggles, which at the time included ailments such as syphilis, alcoholism, and dementia among more contemporary-diagnosed illnesses. During our visit, curator Megan Lallier-Barron provided a tour of the exhibits, which include an extensive timeline, history about the hospital’s architecture and buildings, and information about some of the patients and the types of treatments used. Treatments could be torturing, like sterilizations and straightjackets, but could also be cutting-edge such as bio-feedback or art therapy.
The tour and exhibits highlighted the humanity and lived experiences of OSH patients and those that served them. Some patients lived at the hospital for decades — working in the gardens, kitchens, or laundry room; some staff and their families lived on the campus; and some residents died there as well.
Of the latter, over 3,500 individuals from OSH, the Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital, Mid-Columbia Hospital, Dammasch State Hospital, Oregon State Penitentiary, Deaconess Hospital, and Fairview Training Center were cremated and never claimed by their families. In 2004, the copper urns containing their cremated remains (cremains) were rediscovered corroding in a building on the OSH grounds. They date from 1913 to 1971. One of the most emotional moments of the museum tour was a video of the cremains’ history, Library of Dust, playing in a private room used to reunite the cremains with family members.
After the cremains were rediscovered, work began on ways to pay respect, call attention to their history, and house them in an honorable way until they could be claimed by family members. The discovery of the urns, and recognition that the facilities of OSH were in dire need of attention, resulted in a major hospital replacement project. The Oregon Arts Commission worked with OSH to use funding from Oregon’s Percent for Art in Public Places program to commission the design of a memorial. Lead Pencil Studio, the artist team of Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han, was selected for the project, and created a solemn but hopeful memorial on the OSH grounds, including a restored structure that houses and displays the copper urns that once held the cremains.
Visible through large glass windows are the original corroding copper urns, emptied of the cremains but deserving of tribute. All but a few of them were able to be salvaged.
The unclaimed cremains were moved to new ceramic urns, which line the wall (columbarium) that envelops the courtyard of the memorial; each marked with a nameplate. When cremains are claimed by family, a brass tube is installed to leave a visually empty space within the columbarium — the hope is one day the wall will be riddled with holes and all the cremains reunited with loved ones. Due to the memorial project bringing attention to neglected copper canisters and those individuals whose remains were held within them, and to the efforts of dedicated volunteer Phyllis Zieger, who researched over 3,360 of the unclaimed cremains, over 650 cremains have been reunited with families. A public database is available for interested parties to search for family.
(In 2020, the Oregon Heritage Commission recognized Zieger with an Oregon Heritage Excellence Award for her research and assistance in reuniting urns with family members.)
In 2016, the cremains of a Civil War veteran were removed from the columbarium. Jewett Williams, who fought for the Union’s 20th Maine Regiment, Company H, eventually moved to Oregon and died at OSH with no family present in 1922. For almost a century, his cremains resided with the rest. Because of their rediscovery and the work of staff and volunteers, they will be buried in his home state of Maine, along with other members of his regiment at the Togus National Cemetery. A group of military veteran motorcyclists relayed the cremains across the continental U.S. to bring him home.
The memorial is a thoughtful place. It necessarily invokes melancholy for the unclaimed cremains. It serves as a reminder of the history of neglect, stigmatization, and poor treatment of people suffering from mental health issues, which continues today. But it also is a promise that Oregonians will continue work to reunite these people with loved ones. At the heart of the matter is that these were people, people who struggled, strived, suffered, and hopefully found some solace in their home at the Oregon State Hospital.Recently, the Oregon Cultural Trust granted funds to the Oregon Arts Commission, through its Partner Grant program, to conduct needed maintenance on the Memorial. (The Oregon Historical Society is also one the Oregon Cultural Trust’s five statewide partners, who each receive a percentage of funds that the it distributes annually to support cultural initiatives across the state.) The maintenance project includes a study of the environmental conditions within the historical building that houses the copper urns and consulting with the artists to address logistical challenges related to the process of replacing removed ceramic urns in the columbarium with brass tubes. Eleanor Sandys, Interim Visual Arts Coordinator and Registrar & Research Specialist with the Oregon Arts Commission, has also written about the ongoing project in a recent post on the Oregon Heritage Commission’s blog.
Note: The OSH Museum of Mental Health is currently closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Memorial is free and open to the public.
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