Oregon museum showcases history of psychiatry

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SALEM, Ore. — The cream-colored straitjacket is framed against a stark black background and hangs behind glass. It was, in all likelihood, fashioned by a patient at the then Oregon State Insane Asylum, where sewing was once considered occupational therapy.

The straitjacket is one of several exhibits on permanent display in a small Salem museum you’ve likely never been to or even heard of.

Housed in the former entrance to the old Oregon State Hospital, the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health consists of a handful of small rooms and displays a fraction of the more than 4,000 artifacts contained in its archive.

The 2,500-square-foot museum walks visitors through not only the state-run hospital’s checkered history, though there’s plenty of that, but also through the history of psychiatry itself.

“I think we’re able to do that because, while we manage the state’s collection, we’re a non-profit, said Megan Lallier-Barron, curator of the museum. “We’re able to tell a truthful story.”

Displayed among the many photos that line the walls is an array of once popular treatments for people labeled criminally (or otherwise) insane. Electroshock devices from the 1950s commingle with samples of once-popular medications.

“Laxatives and alcohol were big,” said Hazel Patton, former chairman of the museum’s board of directors.

There’s a small corner where the story is told of patient George A. Nosen, who in 1942 mistook cockroach poison for powdered milk and accidentally caused the deaths of 47 patients who consumed scrambled eggs laced with the sodium fluoride. More than 400 hospital patients and employees became ill after eating the eggs.

The museum features a handful of items that appeared in the 1975 film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on the book by the same name. Written by Oregon author Ken Kesey, the novel was published in 1962. The film, shot on location at the hospital, won five Academy Awards, including best actor (Jack Nicholson), best actress (Louise Fletcher) and best picture.

If you visit, don’t miss the memorial honoring the more than 3,500 patients whose forgotten cremains were kept in copper canisters for decades in a room at the hospital.

The outdoor memorial is steps away from the museum, and features the now-empty canisters on display behind glass in the hospital’s original crematorium.

The story of the cremains offers a haunting glimpse into the history of neglect of mentally ill Oregonians.

The exhibit runs through April 2018.