SALEM – The cream-colored straitjacket is framed against a stark black background and hangs behind glass. It was, in all likelihood, fashioned by a patient at the then Oregon State Insane Asylum, where sewing was once considered occupational therapy.
The straitjacket is one of several exhibits on permanent display in a small Salem museum you’ve likely never been to or even heard of.
Housed in the former entrance to the old Oregon State Hospital, the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health consists of a handful of small rooms and displays a fraction of the more than 4,000 artifacts contained in its archive.
The 2,500-square-foot museum walks visitors through not only the state-run hospital’s checkered history – though there’s plenty of that – but also through the history of psychiatry itself.
“I think we’re able to do that because, while we manage the state’s collection, we’re a nonprofit, said Megan Lallier-Barron, curator of the museum. “We’re able to tell a truthful story.”
Displayed among the many historic photos that line the walls is an array of once popular treatments for people labeled criminally (or otherwise) insane. Electroshock devices from the 1950s commingle with samples of once-popular medications.
“Laxatives and alcohol were big,” said Hazel Patton, former chairman of the museum’s board of directors.
There’s a small corner where the story is told of patient George A. Nosen, who in 1942 mistook cockroach poison for powdered milk and accidentally caused the deaths of 47 patients who consumed scrambled eggs laced with the sodium fluoride. More than 400 hospital patients and employees became ill after eating the eggs.
The museum features a handful of items that appeared in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the book by the same name. Written by Oregon author Ken Kesey, the novel was published in 1962. The film, shot on location at the hospital, won five Academy Awards, including best actor (Jack Nicholson), best actress (Louise Fletcher) and best picture.
Dr. Dean Brooks, the hospital’s then-superintendent, played the role of superintendent in the film. Brooks served as the hospital’s superintendent from 1955 to 1982. Brooks’ daughter, Denni Brooks, serves as the museum’s board secretary and maintains an active role in the museum.
If you visit the museum, don’t miss the memorial honoring the more than 3,500 patients whose forgotten cremains were kept in copper canisters for decades in a small room at the hospital.
The outdoor memorial is steps away from the museum, and features the now-empty canisters on display behind glass in the hospital’s original crematorium. The cremains are embedded in a metal wall surrounding the small plaza.
The story of the cremains offers a haunting glimpse into the long history of neglect of mentally ill Oregonians.
“It’s by understanding the past that we can have a better perspective on what we’re doing today,” Lallier-Barron said. “Maybe 50 years from now we might feel the same way about some of the treatments we’re doing now.”
The museum’s latest exhibit, “War Wounds,” commemorates the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War I and its effect on the hospital’s patient population.
“We anticipated seeing a spike in admissions related to war-related mental health issues,” Lallier-Barron said. “And we did see some of that.”
In the vernacular of the time, soldiers were said to be “shell-shocked.”
“Many didn’t present with that, though one could probably infer that that was the case,” Lallier-Barron said. The exhibit runs through April 2018.
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