Historic hospital tells its story

Building housing Oregon’s Museum of Mental Health has been around since 1893

The building housing the Museum of Mental Health in Salem was recently refurbished and houses artifacts from the hospital’s 120-year history, including mementos from the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” filmed on the hospital grounds.

Credit: Dan Wise
The building housing the Museum of Mental Health in Salem was recently refurbished and houses artifacts from the hospital’s 120-year history, including mementos from the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” filmed on the hospital grounds.

The building housing the Museum of Mental Health (MMH) at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem dates from 1893. The Hollywood film depicting the fictional life of patients at the hospital dates from 1975. Other buildings on the hospital grounds date from 80 years ago, 40 years ago, 20 years ago, and as recently as 24 months ago. The entire campus is on the National Historic Register.

“In 2010 we began a series of negotiations with the state when this museum was little more than a hypothetical shape in our minds. Once we were granted access to the space, our first job involved researching and documenting the artifacts, most of which came from the state hospital. As a non-profit and all-volunteer group of citizens, we are interested in preserving the history of Oregon’s state hospital,” emphasizes Kathryn Dysart who is secretary of the 16-member Board of Directors for MMH.

Permanent fixtures like the security system were installed by the state who owns the building. The interior of the museum, in terms of colors used and floor coverings including related items, was done by the directors and members, volunteers every one, who designed, researched, and built it. MMH equals 2,500 sq. ft. covering seven rooms on the first floor. Teams of volunteers now staff the museum.

“Parents might want to remember that the material here is adult-oriented. If their children have questions about anything they see, we leave it to a parent’s discretion how to phrase the answers or how to explain the meaning of any of the hundreds of different artifacts on exhibit,” remarks Dysart.

Part of the exhibit is about “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the second film in the history of the Academy Awards to earn the five top Oscars including one for best movie. It was filmed mostly on the museum’s premises. Visitors walk in a hallway that is a replica of the one that actually existed and was used in the film. A sense of déjà vu accompanies a viewing of the movie before or after an MMH visit.

Begin the tour in the Dean Brooks Room and learn that he has been a part of Oregon State Hospital (OSH) for 65 years. In 1947 he was a new psychiatrist. From 1955 to 1982 he served as superintendent of the institution and as a leader of mental health reform nationwide. A small painting is there because of its association with him.

A notebook on the table, “Steps to Claiming Cremains at Oregon State Hospital,” explains how to find the cremains of anyone who may have died there in the 1890s without family to claim them and bury their remains elsewhere. About 3,000 canisters are waiting for people interested in genealogy to come searching for a relative’s cremains. In connection with this, a corner closet will be converted into an audio-recording studio eventually. Genealogists may come during museum hours or by appointment.

“Tours could be completed in perhaps 30 minutes if one should choose to do so,” muses Dysart. “A more leisurely time would be three to four hours, depending on how thoroughly a visitor reads the written explanations given with the exhibits and how much time is spent examining them.”

There are also phones with some exhibits. Pick up the receiver and listen to a story about the particulars connected with the exhibit. They are audio recordings putting you in the wards with the patients.

Read a recipe on what is needed to make 1,200 biscuits: “Start with 113 lbs. of flour and 9 lbs. of baking powder………” Scan a list of patients’ occupations on being admitted to OSH. Notice how many were farmers and how many were housewives in an era when husbands had the power to commit their wives.

“Every doctor and every nurse who ever trained in Oregon did their psychiatric rotation here. Other medical personnel in the state with a psychiatric perspective, such as occupational therapists and even chaplains, also trained here,” remarks Dysart, stressing the hospital’s historical importance.

Long-term goals are called “ambitious.” In the short term, MMH exceeded projections as to the number of visitors to expect in the first few months after opening its doors, providing encouragement that achieving much more is indeed possible. Ahead of the museum may be these outreach projects:

MMH would like to send educational projects out to the schools. MMH would like to have traveling exhibits in the state. MMH would like to have a speakers’ series available anywhere in the state. MMH would like to encourage people to more fully understand where the state’s history of mental health has been. In this way they could have conversations about where it might be expected to go in the future.

To get there, turn off Center Street on to Recovery Drive and look for parking places and the museum building immediately to the left. A handicapped entrance is on the south side of the building. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Tours of the seven rooms are self-guided with docents nearby to answer questions. Call 503-932-3201 or go to www.oshmuseum.org for more details.

Regular admission is $4. A senior over age 50 pays $3. A student with a valid I.D., whether high school or post graduate, pays $3. A child under age 18 pays $2. For a group of 10 or more who have scheduled a tour two weeks in advance, there is a $1 discount from whatever the regular price would be.

Teaser Photo: Museum of Mental Health Board of Directors member Kylie Pine sits next to a vintage hospital hall photo mounted in the museum.

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