April 17, 2013 - April 13, 2014 (Update: This exhibition has been extended through Fall 2014.)
How do we—as individuals and as a society—perceive, define, respond to, and interact with those deemed abnormal, whether in body, mind, or behavior? The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health, is one of several inaugural special collections to premiere at the Exploratorium’s re-opening on April 17, 2013 at San Francisco’s Pier 15. It is part of the museum’s new gallery dedicated to the art and science of human behavior. The exhibition runs through April 2014. (Update: This exhibition has been extended through Fall 2014.)
The exhibition includes three elements: artifacts such as suitcases and trunks of 14 patients confined at the Willard Psychiatric Center, a New York mental institution that was decommissioned in 1995. The personal items provide an evocative statement of the residents’ lives before they were institutionalized.
The artifacts are on loan from the NY State Museum. The exhibit also includes photographs of the patients’ effects by Jon Crispin, poetry by psychiatrist/poet Karen Miller, and interviews with both patients and caregivers.
These objects are juxtaposed with an exhibit that coincides with the release of its latest edition of the controversial Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-5th edition. These elements explore its evolution as a guide used by psychiatric professionals to diagnose and treat cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disorders. The exhibit includes poignant videotaped interviews with both clinicians and clients speaking about their experiences and commenting on the difficulty of categorizing human behavior.
The third element in the exhibition is Restraint, an interactive installation that explores the ways psychiatric patients have been restrained over time. Visitors can experience restraint for themselves inside the late 19th century Utica Crib, a cage-like contraption made of wood. Visitors also can view and comment on other types of restraints, including the ways societies and cultures constrain everyday behavior, and the ways we must often restrain our own impulses. Visitor feedback on all collection elements will be strongly encouraged, as well as the sharing of personal experiences and perspectives.
The Changing Face of What is Normal exhibition asks visitors to put themselves in the shoes of others—and to imagine at one time or another, everyone feels different. “Normality” is a constantly evolving concept with a surprising range of definitions. The myriad ways we label each other has possible implications of those labels. Ultimately, it prompts each of us to use the understanding of mental health as a lens to examine the way we perceive ourselves and our relationships with others.
Willard Psychiatric Center artifacts
When the Willard Psychiatric Center closed and was decommissioned in 1995, more than 400 artifacts belonging to 14 former patients were found in an attic. The bags contained personal items the patients brought with them when they arrived and in many cases never saw again. Ranging from the banal to the precious, the items tell powerful stories of their owners’ lives: hand- sewn baby dresses from a seamstress whose babies died and whose husband was a violent alcoholic; frantic unsent letters pleading for help in escape; pictures of a polished European girl frolicking on the beach; citizenship papers; a pair of ice skates; and books of philosophy, literature, and poetry.
Jon Crispin has been commissioned to contribute a series of photographs for “The Changing Face of What is Normal.” His photographs feature the suitcases in a series of stages from covered and protected to the artifacts within the suitcases exposed. Crispin has been a full-time, self-employed photographer since 1974, dividing his time between regular freelance assignments and longer-term photo documentary projects. His regular clients include national publications, colleges and universities, and non-profit organizations. His documentary projects include exhibitions and publications on 19th century New York State insane asylums; 19th and early 20th century New York State prisons; the living conditions of rural New York State residents; New York State agriculture; the architecture of Syracuse, New York; food and nutrition programs for the needy, and the Erie Canal. Many of these projects were funded by The New York State Council on the Arts and by the New York State Museum. In the past few years, Jon has photographed over 300 plywood panels from the Fulton Street viewing area at the New York City World Trade Center site, as well as over 100 panels from Liberty Island overlooking the same location. He is currently working on a documentation of suitcases left behind by patients at the Willard Asylum in Willard, NY. Jon has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wittenberg University. www.joncrispin.com/
Karen L. Miller is a psychiatrist and a poet and has worked as an artist-in-residence creating poetry based on the files belonging to the mental patients from Willard Mental Hospital, a facility that was de-accessioned in the late 1990’s. This project augments “The Changing Face of What is Normal” an installation that includes the patient’s belongings found in the attic. She began as a poet, majoring in American History and Literature at Harvard. She went on to medical school at Tufts, and continued her training in pediatrics, then in child and adult psychiatry. Until 2009, she worked primarily in public medicine—at city hospitals and clinics, in state psychiatric hospitals, and in schools. She taught at Harvard hospitals and was until 2009 an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Since 2009 she has been in private practice. She returned to poetry in 2004 and made changes in her psychiatric practice to allow her more time to write. She was awarded a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2007 and published poems in literary journals. In 2008 she read about the discovery of hundreds of suitcases after the closure of Willard State Hospital, in upstate New York, and decided to write a book of poetry about the people who lived and worked at Willard. Since December, 2009, she has worked with the historian, Craig Williams, of the New York State Museum, whose work, with his staff, preserved and archived these cases. She has also interviewed former patients, former employees, and people who lived near the hospital. She continues both to research and write about this community.