The New York Times has a piece and a slide show presentation about the collection of brain samples stored at Yale University by Dr. Harvey Cushing. Cushing, who died in 1939 and donated the collection to the university, was a well-known neurosurgeon, who helped lead the field toward respectability in the early 20th century. The Cushing collection in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale University at 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, is open to the public Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
There seems to be quite a bit of interest among photographers in visiting closed asylums. The New York Times has a short photo essay by Matt McDonough on abandoned psychiatric hospitals, along with links to photographs taken by Claudio Edinger and Christopher Payne. Unlike the photographer Slyv – who has also taken photographs of abandoned facilities and whose online exhibit was recently reviewed here by Carla Yanni – McDonough does not sneak into these sites. In addition, his curiosity leads him to ask questions about the former inhabitants as well as about the policies behind de-institutionalization. In light of Yanni’s comments, however, one can’t help but notice the idiom (both visual and textual) of the uncanny in these accounts, as terms like “haunted” and “creepy” occupy a prominent place in the descriptions.
With the start of the fall/winter university semester on the horizon in the United States and Europe, H-Madness will be hosting a series of posts featuring course syllabi in field of the history of madness, mental health, and psychiatry. During the last week of August/first week of September, H-Madness will be posting syllabi from a number of universities and colleges, along with comments by their instructors. Gareth Evans, Andreas Killen, Paul Lerner, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Mark Micale, among others, will be sharing their course syllabi and their thoughts about teaching courses in the field.
The editors at H-Madness welcome your input as well. If you teach a course that deals with the history of madness, mental health, and/or psychiatry and are interested in sharing your syllabus and thoughts about teaching, please contact editor Greg Eghigian (email@example.com). We would be delighted to post them and include you in the series.
We hope to make this a regular feature of H-Madness. In addition, we plan to set up an archive of course syllabi that can serve as a resource for those interested in developing similar courses at their institutions.
Forbidden Places is an on-line collection of photographs by an artist named Slyv, who describes his passion for urban exploration as developing out of childhood trips to empty factories; he suggests that “abandoned and futureless places are part of our cultural heritage.” And he urges browsers to investigate and document these places before they deteriorate further or disappear altogether. The New Jersey State Hospital near Morristown, New Jersey, known as Greystone, is among the decrepit sites he has recently surveyed.
The photo essay begins with historical postcards of Greystone, and continues with some compelling and original images of the interior of the hospital. One of the best shows a corridor, halfway below grade, with piles of clean white snow beneath cracked windows, the dark silhouette of a wheelchair, and a menacing grid of overhead pipes. The most successful photographs are the ones in which he lets the space speak for itself: when he tilts the camera to create false drama, the overall effect is weaker. There’s enough drama in a vacant psychiatric hospital without the artist’s contrivances.
There are several evocative photos on this website, and these might in turn pique the interest of folks who know little about the history of asylums, the treatment of the mentally ill in the nineteenth century, or the preservation of old buildings. This is a potentially hip way for historians to reach non-academics.
Architectural historians, like myself, sometimes complain that our students sit motionless behind their computers and iphones, encountering culture as two-dimensional fare inside a blinking screen. As a teacher, I even devise special assignments that force my students to walk around our city looking at actual structures. So I should be glad: here is a young artist and his young audience. They are adventurous and curious, and they even go outside. (I am guessing Slyv’s age based on one photograph of his naked back and the audience’s age based on the language in the comments.)
So while I hate playing the schoolmarm (“kids today!”), I can’t wholeheartedly support this project, particularly the asylums. While the artist claims he does not recommend trespassing, the comments are sprinkled with barely literate questions that amount to “how do I get past the cops?” The other explorers are attracted to Greystone because of its creepy, forbidden quality, which apparently equates to counter-culture fun. Is this generation of people so doused in vampire blood that sadness is a game to them; does morbidity bounce off them?
Curiosity about the patients doesn’t erase stigma; it perpetuates stigma. Sneaking around asylums diminishes the lived experience of the patients who suffered in there. It’s not OK to lie in someone else’s coffin, or wear someone else’s straitjacket.
If readers of H-Madness are interested in a serious and deeply-sensitive artist’s approach to state hospitals, they will appreciate Asylum by Christopher Payne (MIT Press, 2009), a beautifully produced book of photographs with a foreword by Oliver Sacks. Payne is an outstanding photographer who knows the conflicted and troubled history of this subject well. (He also got permission for every site visit.)
Carla Yanni is Professor of Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She studies the relationships among architecture, science, and medicine from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, was published by the University of Minnesota Press in spring 2007. In 2000, Johns Hopkins University Press published Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.