Thursday, April 2, 2015

Exploring the Oregon Museum of Mental Health

Kirkbride U, Oregon State Hospital
The one good thing to be said about the old Oregon State Hospital is that the dilapidated, decaying building was a real star maker. The movie shot there, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, swept the 1976 Academy Awards winning in all the major categories including Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director (Milos Forman).  Thirty years later, a series of articles published in The Oregonian describing the facility’s deplorable conditions and mistreatment of patient cremains won the paper a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.

Hospital grounds
The hospital, originally called the Oregon State Insane Asylum, was built in 1883 on 130 acres in what was then rural Salem, but is now well within the city limits on busy Center St. The grand, Italianate, brick building was constructed in the style devised by Thomas Kirkbride, a leading advocate for the mentally ill. His plans included a central administration building connecting two separate wings for male and female patients.  Over the years, additional wings and buildings were added, and the hospital grew to a peak occupancy of 3475 patients in 1958.

As state funding for mental health declined, so did conditions at the facility until it reached a state described in The Oregonian with adjectives like “grim,” “decrepit,” and “dreary.”  Amid mounting concerns for patient safety in the event of an earthquake, a governor’s task force in 2004 concluded it was time to tear down the hospital and build a new one more in line with current practices in treating mental illness. A preservation group rallied to put the campus on the National Register of Historic Places, and the original administrative unit was saved from the wrecking ball and incorporated into the new design.

Today the restored Kirkbride building houses the Oregon Museum of Mental Health. While small in size, it’s chockfull of pictures, artifacts, documents and interactive materials offering visitors an unusual opportunity to explore the history of mental illness and its treatments over the years, as well as the specific story of the Oregon State Hospital.  The exhibit “Why Am I Here” highlights patients’ stories and offers startling statistics on the types of diagnosis from dementia, menopause, or alcoholism that might mean a lifelong commitment in the asylum.

Another exhibit features equipment used in treatment ranging from straightjackets, lobotomies, insulin and electric shocks to the more benign hydrotherapy and cosmotherapy, a treatment encouraging patients to look their best. A section of the 1948-1951 financial statement for the Cosmotherapy Department shows line items for 224 eyebrow archings at 75 cents each, and 3071 finger waves at 50 cents each, for example.

Other displays show daily life at the hospital for both patients and staff, and there is a small exhibit related to the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Using the hospital and patients for the movie project was extremely controversial at the time, but the hospital’s director, Dr. Dean Brooks, fought for it claiming the filming would provide jobs for patients and make for an exciting adventure for everyone at the hospital.  It might be noted that Dr. Brooks plays himself in the movie in the role of Dr. Spivey.

After leaving the museum, visitors should turn left and walk a short distance downhill to the Cremains Memorial. For years, the cremains of unclaimed, deceased patients were placed in copper canisters and stored in the basement of one of the buildings. Over time, water seeped in, corroding the canisters and turning the copper into marbled shades of blue and green. The labels on the 3500 canisters were mostly gone, and it took hospital employees two years to research the identities. Today the canisters reside in a special building allowing visitors to honor the dead.

The museum experience is a reminder of how our understanding and treatment of mental health has evolved over the years, and how much further we need to travel. To learn more about visiting, see

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