Willard Suitcase Exhibit

When Willard Psychiatric Center in New York’s Finger Lakes closed in 1995, workers discovered hundreds of suitcases in the attic of an abandoned building.  Many of them appeared untouched since their owners packed them decades earlier before entering the institution.

The suitcases and their contents bear witness to the rich, complex lives their owners lived prior to being committed to Willard.  They speak about aspirations, accomplishments, community connections, but also about loss and isolation. From the clothing and personal objects left behind, we can gain some understanding of who these people were before they disappeared behind hospital walls.  We can picture their jobs and careers, see them driving cars, playing sports, studying, writing, and traveling the world.  We can imagine their families and friends.  But we can also see their lives coming apart due to unemployment, the death of a loved one, loneliness, poverty, or some other catastrophic event.

The suitcases and the life stories of the people who owned them raise questions that are difficult to confront.  Why were these people committed to this institution, and why did so many stay for so long?  How were they treated?  What was it like to spend years in a mental institution, shut away from a society that wanted to distance itself from people it considered insane?  Why did most of these suitcase owners live out their days at Willard?  What about their friends and families?  Are the circumstances today any better than they were for psychiatric patient during the first half of the 20th century?


Co-sponsors of the Willard Suitcase Exhibit and Thursday Presentations:

PROVAIL, Alpha Supported Living Services, Washington Initiative for Supported Employment (W.i.S.e), Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council, University of Washington Disability Studies Program


One Response to “Willard Suitcase Exhibit”

  1. This is a reality check, the bunkbeds and suitcases on first examination look just like peopleless photos of the Nazi death camps and what remains. What happened to these people, and the families and friends they left behind? We know that the Nazis killed anyone who was considered “unfit” including the aged, developmentally delayed, and the mentally ill. But this was a hospital in the United States, and there were many more, in every state. These hospitals may not have killed these people in the same manner that Hitler did, but they did not allow them a chance for recovery, but they did take away their spirits, rights to self-advocacy, and their networks of support. They did not give them the slighest opprotunity to get well and return to their former lives.

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