"Lost Cases, Recovered Lives": Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

The Willard Psychiatric Center
The Willard Psychiatric Center circa 1880

When the Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995, staff members were clearing out the hospital when they found, in the rafters of an attic, rows of wooden racks, packed with almost 400 suitcases of all shapes and types, mens on the left, womens on the right. Placed in storage for collection by patients who never left the hospital.
Around half the 54,000 patients who lived at Center over its 126-year existence had died there. Many were buried in the hospital cemetery, their graves marked not by their name but by their case numbers.
Staff members Beverly Courtwright and Lisa Hoffman, along with Craig Williams, a New York State Museum curator, worked to save these historical artifacts which were moved to the Museums warehouse near Albany.
It was here, in 1999, that Darby Penney, who worked in the New York State Office of Mental Health as director of recipient affairs, and Peter Stastny, a professor of psychiatry and documentary filmmaker, became aware of the luggage.
They went through the suitcases to choose a small number of individuals, and identified their belongings for closer study.
Over several years they visited their graves, read their correspondence and medical records, studied their snapshots, talked to their old neighbours, family and caregivers. Gradually they were building a picture of the inmates lives. Photographer Lisa Rinzler documented the artifacts, grave sites, and former homes of the patients.
This lead to the exhibition, "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives": Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, at the New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library, which was seen by more than 600,000 visitors. The exhibition continues to tour America and has tour dates set until 2010.
More information can be found at.

The New York Times article: Forgotten Suitcases, Emotional Baggage.
The Village Voice also carried an informative article: What They Left Behind.

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