Compassionate Education Versus Dark Tourism at an Oregon Mental Hospital
Story and photos by Teresa Bergen

A writer visiting the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health, the historic building where One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed, tries to suppress her morbid curiosity.

Oregon Mental Hospital

When I drove up to the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health in Salem, Oregon, I was expecting an old building stuffed with interesting relics. I'd missed the fact that this is still an enormous working mental hospital with 700 patients and a corresponding number of staff. The razor wire running along the top of one fence attests to the fact that eighty percent of the inmates are "forensic patients," also known as the criminally insane.

Nope, this wouldn't be an ordinary history museum visit, the past neatly divorced from the present.

I'd been itching to visit the mental hospital museum ever since it opened in 2012. Like many people, I have a fascination with certain sites that seem heavy, strange, and spooky. In tourism lingo, this is called "dark tourism" and means visiting sites of death, suffering and the macabre. For example, concentration camps, prisons, sites of torture and tragedy. Some are quite popular: think Ground Zero in New York City, Tuol Sleng torture center and the killing fields of Cambodia, and ghost tours. Of course, Salem's mental health museum is not as dark as most of these places; while it was a site of suffering and tragedy, there were also cures, breakthroughs and healing.

Often, people's impulses are mixed. Sites like killing fields and concentration camps are educational and important historically—God forbid we forget that humans around the world have decided that genocide is a good idea. But when you get just a little gleefully over-fascinated with the particulars of torture and suffering, that's the uncomfortable side of dark tourism. The study of history is noble. The other part? I think it's a better-her-than-me sort of feeling. Life is such a crapshoot. I could have been an educated person in Cambodia in 1974 or a Jew in Germany in 1940, or an uppity Oregon housewife committed to an asylum by my husband in 1890.

My family has what's probably a typical mix of issues: alcoholism, developmentmental disability, depression, schizophrenia, seizure disorder, anxiety. In the early days of mental health treatment, we could have all been thrown in one institution together. Dark tourism is a flirtation with mortality, and with the realization that that unfortunate sucker could have been me. It wasn't though, so I can safely admire the shiny lobotomy tools.

Oregon Mental Hospital facade

Founding a Museum for the Mentally Ill

The museum was officially closed the day I was in Salem, but museum board president Kathryn Dysart had agreed to meet me for a personal tour. Like most of the staff, she's a volunteer. Dysart is part of the group that founded the museum. Her former job of communications director for a school district shows in her articulate explanations of the exhibits and her upfront messaging. "We don't talk about schizophrenics here," she tells me. "We talk about people that suffer from schizophrenia. We use people-first vocabulary. These are people who have their own stories besides mental illness."

She does not indulge dark tourists. While ghost hunter websites tout the spooky potential of the old mental hospital, Dysart isn't going there. “No paranormal stuff,” she states, preempting my ghost questions. "We don’t ever get involved in that dehumanizing conversation."

The museum is housed in what's left of the original red brick 1880s building. It was built in accordance with Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride's views on moral therapy, which posited that a beautiful, tranquil view out every window improves mental health. Once on the cutting edge of mental health treatment, by Y2K the buildings had fallen into disrepair and the increase in forensic patients meant a big drop in visitors and outside attention. "This was like the forgotten hospital," Dysart says.

The catalyst for change came in 2004, when two Oregonian reporters and state senator Peter Courtney toured the hospital. They glimpsed a basement room full of thousands of numbered copper canisters.

The senator was horrified to learn this was a storage room for the unclaimed cremains of 3,500 Oregon citizens. The reporters sensed a big story. Their attention to the hospital resulted in a massive overhaul of the facility, many cremated remains being sent to living descendants, and plans for the new museum.

What's Inside the Old Asylum?

When the state hospital opened in 1883, mental health was much more stigmatized and less understood than it is today. Children were mixed in with the general population until the 1950s, the decade when the hospital's patient count peaked at around three thousand. Back then, most people were committed by family members, or self-committed. One single woman was committed by her landlady, who thought she cried too much. She stayed there 40 years. Native Americans were disproportionately represented. One patient's diagnosis was acute mania caused by masturbation.

Oregon Mental Hospital lobotomy tools

It's easy to look back now and judge. Those sharp lobotomy tools seem sinister, and what on earth did doctors expect to accomplish with insulin shock therapy? But Dysart assures me that medical staff followed the best treatment methods of their time.

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