‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ hospital now mental health museum

October 2, 2017 | By Erin Blakemore

Lobotomies. Straitjackets. Shocks and sedation. If those terms come to mind when you think of the mental hospitals of yore, it’s for good reason: At one point or another, they were cutting-edge treatment for people with mental illnesses.

At the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health in Salem, Ore., the past and present of psychiatry converge. The museum is located on the campus of a still-active treatment facility. Since 1862, the public psychiatric hospital, which started in a stately brick building, has served people with psychiatric disorders. It also was the location for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson.

Today, that first building also hosts a museum. Inside, visitors can experience what life was like at an old-school mental hospital. (It was originally referred to as the state insane asylum.)

Featuring a vintage ward and exhibits filled with tools of bygone psychiatric treatment, the museum offers an engrossing — and sometimes upsetting — trip through the facility’s history.

Visitors are given ID badges bearing the name of a past patient or caretaker. The badges correspond to details peppered throughout the exhibits to better connect visitors with the lived history of the facility.

That history is fraught. The hospital experienced tragedies including a mass poisoning — caused when a patient laced scrambled eggs with cockroach poison — and ongoing problems with overcrowding and patient mistreatment.

In 2005, the Oregonian revealed that the hospital contained the unclaimed ashes of about 3,500 patients whose remains had festered without burial for decades. The newspaper’s series of editorials on the hospital won a Pulitzer Prize. Today, the hospital is home to a memorial for those patients, and the museum tackles this issue and others.

It’s easy to look ahead during Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs through Oct. 7. With new treatment options and decreasing stigma tied to people with mental illnesses, there’s much to look forward to. The museum offers an eerie chance to look back — and acknowledge those who endured mental illness during very different times.

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