Oregon State Hospital

Museum of Mental Health

Housed in what was once the Oregon State Asylum, a state-of-the-art Salem museum now chronicles the history of mental health treatment.

From Asylum to Museum

Statue at Oregon State Hospital

When the Oregon State Insane Asylum first opened in 1883, the roots of mental illness were poorly understood. The causes of madness listed for its first inmates included expected conditions like dementia and head injuries. But they also included a laundry list of conditions that are shocking to our more modern sensibilities. Conditions such as grief, childbirth, overstudy or solitude are just a few common human experiences that were believed to sometimes cause madness and could potentially result in commitment to the State Asylum.

The fascinating chart illustrating these first admissions is just one of the artifacts now on display at the Oregon State Hospital’s Museum of Mental Health in Salem. Housed in the very building that first housed the Oregon State Asylum (later renamed the Oregon State Hospital), the Museum chronicles the history of mental health treatment. From the earliest era of tragically misinformed treatments, records and artifacts display not just the more brutal practices of days gone by, but also the caring concern and best intentions of many of the healthcare providers who were bound to administer them.

Overcoming the Stigma

Oregon State Hospital Memorial

Sadly, the stigma of mental illness can endure even after death. Over the years, hundreds of inmates of the State Hospital passed away at the institution. In many cases there was no family who could—or would—claim the body of a troubled relative. In these cases, the hospital would cremate the remains, placing the ashes in individual copper canisters.

After many decades in storage, these decaying canisters were given a much more respectful resting place. An original brick outbuilding was repurposed as a memorial, both to display the canisters and to respectfully list the names of those whose remains they contained. The project has resulted in new generations discovering forgotten ancestors and finally claiming their remains. The growing number of “holes” in the walls of the memorial each represent a reclaimed family member, formerly lost to history.

Could you have a forgotten relative interred at the memorial? Check the name list at the link above.

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