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In Minnesota, a Museum of Madness

By Robyn L. Davis
The Washington Post
Sunday, April 4, 1999; Page E02
   


There they are, arranged in a spiral pattern and mounted on a cloth-covered board: 63 buttons, 453 nails, nine bolts, 115 hairpins, 42 screws and 942 various pieces of metal, totaling 1,446 pieces. All of them were inside the stomach of a patient in State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 in St. Joseph, Mo., 70 years ago. Now these items make up the most memorable exhibit in the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph, the nation's largest museum dedicated to mental illness--and one of the more unsettling tourist attractions you're likely to stumble across.

"It's such a stark illustration of what mental illness can be," says curator Scott Clark, standing in front of the framed exhibit. "It still evokes more conversation than anything else I've got in here."

The Glore Psychiatric Museum, a state-funded operation in a former mental hospital, takes visitors across the wide span of historical treatment of mental illness, from the days when primitive holes were carved in skulls to release demons, to artifacts of more contemporary treatments, such as patients' paintings or self-portraits.

The museum tour begins on the ground floor with a trip through the hospital's history. The basement tells the story of the hospital's once self-sustaining farm, and the second and third floors show treatment through the ages and modern therapies. Visitors nearly tiptoe through, like wary trespassers in a haunted house, as if fearing a long-lost patient might still roam the halls.

The museum is dedicated not just to mental illness but to its treatment, Clark explains.

"It's fascinating the way we are starting to examine mental illness," Clark says. "It's not a death sentence like it used to be. It used to be that you would drop off your relative at the hospital here and we would tell you to bring the clothes you wanted them to be buried in because they weren't leaving here. This museum was founded so that the stigma of mental illness wouldn't be such a dark thing."

But don't get him wrong: These exhibits are dark. There are rough wooden replicas of 500-year-old devices--a dunking booth, a cage and a giant hollow wheel in which patients were forced to outrun their insanity. Mannequins model white straitjackets and gingham mitts; one is tied to an electroshock table, one to a stake with cardboard flames licking its feet.

Other exhibits show how life has been lived in the St. Joseph mental hospital since it was created by the Missouri legislature in 1872. George Glore, a former psychiatric aide and occupational therapist who eventually went into hospital public relations, created the museum in 1967, collecting artifacts from old buildings as they were gradually torn down or from other state hospitals that were closing. His life's work was explaining mental illness to those who may have had no contact with it, and the museum is a monument to that passion. Clark took over the museum three years ago when Glore's failing health forced him to retire.

Clark's mission isn't just to share history: It's to demonstrate the increasing sophistication of treatments for mental illness--and the often ignored fact that many treatments can cure diseases of the mind. He makes this message known during tours.

"Some of the success stories here have been really, really neat," Clark says. "Patients have been turned into productive members of society. . . . I need to tell people that treatment works."

Among the items Glore saved was a Zenith television containing 525 nonsense letters written on scrap paper, discovered in 1971. A patient believed he could communicate with the characters on TV by stuffing letters into the set. Some letters extracted were shellacked to a board so visitors can read them.

"We still don't know why the thing didn't catch fire," Clark says.

The Glore Psychiatric Museum (3406 Frederick Ave., 816-387-2310) is in St. Joseph, Mo.--30 minutes north of the Kansas City International Airport, one hour north of Kansas City's city limits and two hours south of Omaha. Admission is free but donations are accepted. Guided tours are available on request.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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