The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic - The Museum Exhibit


In the Spring of 1995, Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York was closed after more than 125 years of operation as a state mental hospital. It was then, and quite by accident, that nearly 400 suitcases were discovered in the attic of an abandoned building. The luggage belonged to women and men who were hospitalized there between the1890s and the 1960s. Craig Williams, Senior Historian at the New York State Museum, worked with the hospital’s staff to truck the suitcases to the Museum's warehouse near Albany.

This is where Darby Penney and Peter Stastny encountered the suitcases in 1999, wrapped in plastic and piled among thousands of artifacts from New York State's history. Darby, then Director of Recipient Affairs at the New York State Office of Mental Health, and Peter, a psychiatrist and member of her staff, understood the historical significance of this unique find, and began researching the lives of the suitcase owners. Over the next five years, with the photographer Lisa Rinzler, they immersed themselves in the suitcase contents, medical records and other materials about the suitcase owners, forming relationships with them through the things they left behind. They went to their homes, visited their graves, read their correspondence, studied their snapshots, talked to their neighbors and caretakers, and took photographs of what they saw.

Peter and Darby served as guest curators for the exhibit "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic," which told the life stories of 12 people who were committed to Willard institution from the late 19th-mid-20th century. The 6,000 square foot exhibit, at the New York State Museum from January-September 2004, used artifacts, documents, diaries, artwork and photographs found in the suitcases, as well as material drawn from patient records and other archival sources, to illustrate the lives of these people in all their richness, vitality and complexity. Photographs by Lisa Rinzler of the suitcases and their contents added to the compelling visual nature of the exhibit.

More than 600,000 visitors toured "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives" during its nine-month run. Many returned repeatedly, seeking out the curators for discussion. A playwright determined to write a play about the suitcase owners; a minister wrote a sermon based on her reaction to the exhibit. Strangers started conversations about the material in the galleries; many visitors cried openly.

The people memorialized in the exhibit spent decades at Willard; most of them died there. They were discarded by society, but each of them has a fascinating and often heartbreaking personal story. They had careers, families, artistic or intellectual aspirations; many had dealt with significant personal losses. Each of their stories provides an opening to consider some of the broader issues that affected these people: displacement, loss of loved ones, voice-hearing and idiosyncratic beliefs, religious guilt and acts of redemption, and the many ways the psychiatric system failed them. ‘Lost Case” illustrates a largely unexplored part of America's history, calling into question more than a century of failed public policy on mental health issues by showing the devastating effects of these policies on the lives of people who lost everything. It also gives voice to a group of otherwise forgotten and marginalized people, and in doing so, honors their memories.

Articles about the exhibit:

"Recovered Lives (pdf)", Mental Health Today, April 2004.

"What They Left Behind", by Jennifer Gonnerman, The Village Voice, January 28-February 3, 2004.