Locked behind the heavy doors of the asylum, the history of mental health treatment has long been shrouded in mystery.
For many of us, our only context for what life was like for those in the past who faced a mental health diagnosis and those who treated them was what is portrayed in American Horror Story, Psycho or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Unfortunately, pop culture—which is often based on dramatization and hyperbole—serves as our main source of knowledge sometimes.
But not anymore. The History Museum at the Castle is opening the asylum gates and inviting the community in for a truly innovative and intimate look at the lives of those affected by mental illness and the history of treatment in its new exhibit Asylum: Out of the Shadows.
Exhibit-goers will experience what life was like at one facility in Appleton (that eventually turned into the Outagamie County Health Center and later Brewster Village). A bluetooth-activated smartphone app guides visitors through the exhibit using the perspectives of eight different individuals who either lived or worked at the facility from 1890 to 1944. Each voice guide, brought to life by actors, leads visitors through activities in the dayroom, checking patients’ charts, doing inmate work, even rummaging around the superintendent’s desk. In addition to the voice guides, first-hand knowledge of the facility is exposed through video interviews and stories, but at the heart of the exhibit are the people impacted by the mental health system.
Each artifact and piece of information is shared with the hope to demystify the history of mental health practices. In hindsight, the mental health system was flawed: admitting people for grieving or having been left by their husband, and for using questionable ethics of forced sterilization and manual labor. And yet, as the exhibit points out, the Outagamie County Asylum for the Chronic Insane (as it was called then) was following the advice and practice of the leading scientific and psychological leaders of its time. Asylums also provided housing and respite to vulnerable populations of people for whom the care and proper engagement would surpass the capabilities and/or resources of their families.
That is why it was important to Nick Hoffman, Emily Rock and the other curators at the History Museum to ask local representatives in the mental health fields to join the team of historical experts in putting this exhibit together; to uncover not just the what, but to examine and truthfully portray the why. Exhibit-goers will be left to question the moral groundwork that is inherent with providing treatment to vulnerable people, then and now, and even bring the conversation into present day by providing mental health resources and information. This exhibit isn’t afraid to take an honest look at the evolution of mental health practices while giving us a historical backdrop in which we can draw our own conclusions. From the guided narratives, personal accounts and interactive exhibit pieces, Asylum: Out of the Shadows does exactly that – debunks the stigma and mysticism surrounding the Outagamie County Asylum’s past, and brings the mental health support that is available today into the light.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Bring a pair of earbuds if you want to use the free smartphone app (otherwise you can purchase them in the museum’s gift shop).
History Museum at the Castle
330 E. College Ave., Appleton WI
OPEN: 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday
Text: Tara Pohlkotte
Photos: John Adams