History Packed into a Suitcase

The online exhibit “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” tells the stories of patients from the Willard Asylum through the suitcases they brought with them when they were first admitted. These suitcases, packed by the patients before arriving at the asylum, were most likely never opened once they arrived at the asylum. The online exhibit features nine of the suitcase owners, as well as information about the institution and even interviews with former inmates and workers in both oral and audio format. The pages are set with a black background and are easy to click through with labels and a “home” bar at the bottom that allows you to jump to any page you wish. The exhibition is admittedly a little eerie, but the eerieness only enhances the mental hospital feeling when viewing the pages.

The New York States Archives and The New York State Museum. Photograph of Willard State Hospital. Image from “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.”

This project was started when the asylum closed in 1995 and a staff member discovered an attic with rows of nearly 400 suitcases stored alphabetically and unopened in years. Four years later, Darby Penney and Peter Statsny stumbled upon the luggage in its new storage space in a warehouse near Albany, New York. After going through the luggage and realizing the valuable pieces of history contained in them, they chose a select few to research more thoroughly, and thus the project was born. Penney and Statsny spent years researching these suitcase owners and asylum patients by examining documents, visiting graves, and even talking with living family members. In 2004, an exhibit was displayed at the New York State Museum in memory of these patients and Willard Asylum. The project was largely successful, with much media and even plays being written about the patients. Now the exhibit is available online and as a traveling exhibit throughout the U.S.

Lisa Rinzler. Photograph of suitcase and its contents belonging to Fraulein Theresa/Sister Maria Ursuline. Image from “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.”

The exhibit gives a dark and real insight into the state of mental asylums in the early twentieth century. Patients were often put in asylums against their will and may not have needed to be there (in an audio interview one nurse describes a patient who was mistakenly hospitalized for more than thirty years). Many were outcasts in society and others were just neglected by their families. Once admitted, the patients had little hope of leaving. This is seen in the exhibit with documentation of the different patients as well as the pictures of the suitcases and their contents. The website contains a page for each of the nine patients featured in the exhibit, with photos to click through of portraits, asylum documents, newspaper clippings, and the suitcase contents. It is arranged in a way that makes viewers feel as if they are discovering this material themselves with a detective-story atmosphere. Many pictures are faded or black-and-white, and the suitcase pictures only give a glimpse to the contents. The exhibit works extremely well in its online form; even from a computer screen, the viewer has the sense that they are in the asylum, or at the very least in a dark, uncanny corner of the internet.

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