The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
A 1 - 1 hour photographic presentation and discussion


When Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York closed in 1995, staff discovered hundreds of patients' suitcases in an abandoned attic. The luggage was rescued by the history curator at the New York State Museum and stored in the museum's warehouse until Darby Penney and Peter Stastny learned about them in 1999. Darby and Peter conducted a study of the suitcases, and the lives of the people who owned them. Using the suitcase contents, the patients' medical records, and other historical resources, they pieced together the life stories of 12 individuals who were admitted to Willard between 1898 and 1952. They served as guest curators for a major exhibit at the New York State Museum in 2004, "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives." The exhibit challenged the stereotypes that many people have of mental patients by depicting the lives of the suitcase owners in all their complexity and individuality. The suitcases speak to aspirations, accomplishments, community connections, and also to loss and isolation. Audiences will have an opportunity to connect with a more humanistic view of individuals diagnosed with mental illness, and to learn about the history of mental health care through the lives of people exposed to it. The presentation includes slides of the suitcase contents, the Willard grounds and buildings, and the suitcase owners, and an historical narrative about their lives before and after institutionalization.