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290. Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic

November 1, 2011

I find this to be a bit depressing if I think about it but very fascinating. Also a part of me feels if I learn about these people its not depressing because they have more than a suitcase but an education of our past. I do find myself in Barnes and Noble reading the flyers and spending 30 minutes skimming the books. I will have to see the exhibit for myself!!

So what is it?

Could you pack the essence of your lifetime into a suitcase? The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic, an exhibition on view at Hilt Building – Betty Cannon Gallery from mid-October through November 2011 does exactly that.

In 1995, during the closure of Willard Psychiatric Center in New York’s Finger Lakes region, several hundred suitcases filled with the personal belongings of former patients were discovered in the hospital attic. The suitcases and their contents bear witness to the rich, complex lives these people led before they were committed to Willard – and speak to their aspirations, accomplishments, and community connections, as well as to loss and isolation. From the clothing and personal objects left behind, we can gain some understanding of who these people were before they disappeared behind hospital walls. The pictures and stories illustrate the ordinary lives these people led: they raised families, had jobs, were educated and traveled, fell in love, and faced misfortune. For many, dealing with hardships sealed their fate to a lifetime in a mental hospital.

“The Lives They Left Behind” was created by The Community Consortium, an organization of people with psychiatric histories and their allies, to honor the memories of these people and others like them who were removed from their communities and institutionalized. This exhibit provides insight into psychiatric institutions in the early-mid 20th century, and also raises some difficult and compelling questions:

Why were they committed? Sr. Roderigo, #15902, an educated, upper class Filipino, grew depressed and heard voices accusing him of being a sinner, at which point his employer had him committed. He was 29 years old. This observation was later placed in his file: “Years of Institutionalization appear to have been a mistake, as far as duration, as this man appears in perfect mental condition now.”

How were they treated? Mr. Dmytro, #32643, after coping with the loss of his wife and child, became convinced that he was supposed to marry President Truman’s daughter. During his stay at Willard, the staff had trouble understanding his thick Ukrainian accent and he was given twenty electroshock treatments, which did not improve his condition.

Where were their friends and family? Mrs. Ethel, #20756, was visited by her grown children 3 times early in her admission. After that she received no other visits, even though her daughter-in-law worked at the hospital.

The exhibit is offered locally by Community Mental Health of Muskegon County. The exhibition is open to the public at Hilt Building – Betty Cannon Gallery from mid-October through November 2011. We are planning the schedule and special events (receptions, tours, etc.), so watch for more details.

The Lives They Left Behind is circulated by The Exhibition Alliance of Hamilton, NY –

For more information of exhibit times, dates, and admission visit:


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