Located in the original 1883 Kirkbride Building that once held the Oregon State Insane Asylum, this museum preserves the artifacts and stories of those who worked and lived there during its 130 years of operation.
I’ve been wanting to visit the Museum of Mental Health ever since it opened in 2012. It’s one of only a few around the world that are part of a still-functioning hospital.
The first OSH building in Salem was constructed in 1883 and influenced by the design principles of Thomas Kirkbride, MD, which were meant to facilitate effective psychiatric treatment according to knowledge at the time. The original OSH Kirkbride building had wards for patients that extended symmetrically from a central administration area with small rooms for patient living quarters.
Nearly 100 years after it was built, the building was chosen as the location for the Academy Award-winning film, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the novel by Oregon author Ken Kesey.
In 2005, an architectural assessment of the facility determined that the site was unsafe. Most of the dilapidated and asbestos filled main building was torn down and replaced starting in the fall of 2008. The impetus for overhauling the OSH Salem campus was to meet current standards in psychiatric treatment while facilitating new approaches to patient care. Care was once provided to patients within small living quarters. With such restricted space, staff could work with only a few patients at a time, and it was not easy to customize treatments. Unit-centered care also increased patients’ sense of isolation.
OSH clinicians had been considering how to improve patient care and were intrigued by the “treatment mall” approach. At User Group meetings for the project, they discussed how new facilities could support innovative ways to interact with patients. As a result, a plan specific to OSH began to emerge. This new vision of mental healthcare emphasized normalization, self-determination and reintegration into society. Patients would be encouraged to participate actively in their recovery and to gain practical skills necessary once they left the hospital.
The 2,500 square-foot museum is operated by a non-profit organization and is located within the original Asylum facility.
The museum includes permanent and changing exhibits located throughout multiple rooms and touches upon the history about many of the discontinued practices that are no longer considered proper treatment for mental illnesses as well as updates on current practices.
When plans to replace the old hospital were first announced, current and former members of the hospital staff got into the network of tunnels that ran beneath the old buildings and realized there were thousands of artifacts stashed away.
Much like the museum found at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, CA, visitors at OSH get an unvarnished story of life at one of the nation’s most notorious mental health institutions. The museum also spotlights how treatments changed over time. Early on, “moral treatment” emphasized “a wholesome environment and moral influence of staff.” Later, treatment got physical. A straitjacket, handcuffs, leather restraints and an “electroconvulsive therapy” machine are all displayed.
Displays including documents, photographs and recordings, help tell the stories of the people who once lived and worked in the hospital.
A dresser inside a replica of one of the original patient rooms.
An accidental mass poisoning occurred on November 18, 1942 when scrambled eggs were served for dinner.
Within minutes people got stomach cramps, leg cramps, started to vomit, and had respiratory difficulties.
In the end, 467 people got sick and 47 people died. Forensic examination determined that the poisoning was due to a mix-up in the kitchen. Instead of flour sodium fluoride, a poison to kill cockroaches, had been used in the cooking process. Oops, sorry.
While treatment at the hospital in the early years might not have been perfect, some programs were actually shown to be beneficial to the patients who participated in them. Such was the case with the hospitals Wilderness Program.
…and music therapy…
…also proved to be therapeutic to those patients who participated in the programs.
Dr. Dean Brooks probably knows more about the Oregon State Hospital than anyone else. He was the Superintendent of the Salem mental institution for more than 25 years and put it on the map forever when he allowed the filming of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” on the hospital grounds.
His decision to open the hospital’s doors to Hollywood drew criticism from other mental health professionals who thought the movie would set their profession back 50 years.
The movie went on to win the 1976 Best Picture Oscar and a slew of other awards. Academy Award winning actress Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched was even a featured guest at the grand opening of the museum back in 2012.
The hydrotherapy unit that Chief Bromden uses to break free in the movie’s climactic scene was just sitting in a hospital storage room collecting dust before being pulled out and put on display at the museum.
After visiting the museum, there was one more place I had to see.
Located right next to the Kirkbride Building is a memorial like no other.
In 2004, Senate President Peter Courtney toured the Oregon State Hospital and discovered what would forever change the course of mental health treatment in Oregon. It all started with unlocking the door to what he later would call the “Room of Forgotten Souls.” Inside a small, non-descript hospital building, Senator Courtney discovered more than 3,500 copper urns stacked three deep on simple, pine shelves. – Oregon State Hospital Memorial Booklet
He would later compare the treatment of the urns to the treatment of those with mental illness – neglected and forgotten – and led the charge to secure funding to replace the existing 128-year-old psychiatric hospital with two new hospitals and passed legislation that would allow the state to publish the names of individuals whose urns were in the custody of the Oregon State Hospital for the purposes of reunification and the construction of a memorial for any unclaimed remains. – Oregon State Hospital Memorial Booklet
The memorial is built within a relocated and restored 1896 structure known as Building 60, once the hospital pestilence house and morgue. The new courtyard recreates the footprint of a crematorium structure (Building 75) which was once attached to the brick building. A wire filigree sculpture highlights the former building’s walls and windows. The bench in this courtyard is also artist-made from a tree that stood here. From this courtyard, visitors can view 3,423 copper urns, stacked in sequential rows with empty spots for those that have been claimed by family members. The ashes from the copper urns were placed in new vessels handmade by the artists inside the memorial’s columbarium wall. The new garden around the memorial provides a tranquil atmosphere and a sense of private enclosure within the hospital grounds. – Oregon State Hospital Memorial Booklet
A large window cut into the historic crematoria building communicates this long-hidden history and the story of institutional loss-of-individuality during past eras. The project was done in an effort towards healing and closure.
The columbarium wall is made from sandblasted metal turned a soft matte from weather. The ashes from the copper urns were transferred into ceramic canisters and placed in the columbarium wall. The niche of each urn is engraved with a number, name and, if known, both birth and death dates. A single empty ceramic urn is visible in a corner of the courtyard to recognize the patients who were ordered exhumed from Asylum Cemetery and cremated, but whose whereabouts are unknown. In years to come more families will come to claim their relatives. As each claim is made, the family takes home both the ceramic urn and the empty copper urn. Some have even chosen to let them rest in peace with the hope that others will continue to visit them here for generations to come. When the ceramic urns are removed they are replaced by a hollow brass tube that represents the increasing significance of reunited families. As the golden perforations increase the transparency of this once solid wall it is hoped that the evolving appearance communicates the gradual closure of this important piece of Oregon history. – Oregon State Hospital Memorial Booklet
The Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health
2600 Center St NE, Salem, OR 97301
Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from noon until 4 p.m. or by appointment.
Adults $4, students and seniors $3. Members always free.