SALEM, Ore. — They called them “lunatics” and “idiots” and, of course, in a famous book and Oscar-winning film both created right here in Oregon, people who lived in a “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Now, visitors to the new Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health can decide for themselves as they peruse the histories of some of the thousands of patients — along with decades’ worth of other artifacts — who have walked through the hospital’s doors during its 130-year history.
Kathryn Dysart, a volunteer at the museum and one of 15 members on its board, hopes it will simultaneously educate the masses and help remove the stigma often attached to those who suffer from various illnesses of the mind.
“Our goal is to tell the story of the people who lived and worked in the hospital,” Dysart said during a tour of the museum.
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“And, also, to raise the issues of mental illness. There is no one in the world who hasn’t been touched by mental illness or doesn’t know someone who has been touched by it.”
The museum opened Oct. 6, about six months after the final buildings of the new, state-of-the-art Oregon State Hospital (OSH) were completed during an impressive remodeling project.
The museum is housed in the only part of the original hospital, which opened in 1883 as the Oregon State Insane Asylum, that remains. It is on the first floor of the redbrick Kirkbride U Building on the hospital’s campus, which lies just north of the Oregon State Penitentiary.
Just north of the hospital, across Center Street, is the Dome Building that once belonged to OSH but is now part of the state Department of Corrections.
The Dome Building is where moviegoers first laid eyes on the handcuffed character of R.P. McMurphy — played by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name — as he arrived at the hospital from prison for evaluation.
Not surprisingly, props and photographs and other items related to “Cuckoo’s Nest” hold a prominent place among the new museum’s exhibits.
There is the marbled hydrotherapy unit, the one Chief Bromden (played by Will Sampson) rips from the floor and then uses to smash a barred window as he makes his escape in the film’s final scene after McMurphy is given a lobotomy.
There is the black-and-white TV, still missing its knobs because Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher) removed them so the patients couldn’t turn the channel.
Movie is playing
The television sits elevated in a corner — playing the movie on a continuous loop — and was recovered from a Dumpster after someone tossed it when filming was completed.
And there is the leather director’s chair that says “Dean Brooks” on it, a gift from the film’s producers to the doctor who was the real hospital’s superintendent from 1955 to 1981, and who also played the fictional one in the movie despite having no previous acting experience.
Brooks, who was 96 when he died on May 30 at a Salem retirement home not far from the hospital, played the role of Dr. John Spivey, who conducts McMurphy’s intake and oversees his tumultuous stay.
And it was Brooks who made the daring and controversial call to allow the filmmakers, including director Milos Forman and co-producer Michael Douglas, to make the movie at OSH.
“If the patients had said no, he would not have done it,” said Dennie Brooks, the eldest of three daughters, a retired social worker who lives in Salem. “He thought it would be fun.”
Not only was it that, it also became one of the most highly acclaimed films of all time and to this day is the first thing many people associate with the Oregon State Hospital.
“He saw it as an opportunity to create a conversation,” said Brooks, who grew up at the hospital from the age of 4 after her father was hired in 1947 as a staff psychiatrist.
And Dean Brooks saw the new museum, which has a room dedicated to his career, in the same light, she said.
“He thought it was off to a phenomenal start,” she said. He was there for the museum’s ribbon-cutting.
“He was very pleased with the development and the mission (of the museum),” said Dennie Brooks.
“In the world of mental health, there is the stigma and the shame, which is so sad,” she
said. “Because we now know more than ever.”
When it opened in 1883, it was the state’s first public psychiatric institution. Three-hundred and seventy patients were transferred by train from the Hawthorne Asylum in Portland, a private mental institution.
In a sign of how mental patients were viewed then, a newspaper headline called it the “Exodus of the Insane,” with a subhead that read, “How the Strange Procession Appeared to an Outsider — Some of the Curious Conceits of Crazy Folks,” according to a museum display.
The hospital’s peak population was 3,545 patients in 1958, almost six times the number today, which is about 600.
Until the 1950s, civil commitments, in which citizens could bring complaints about others and ask a judge to commit that person to public care after a doctor’s exam, along with family members committing loved ones, made up the majority of OSH’s population.
Children were also patients for decades.
Today, the hospital’s population consists only of adults who have either been found guilty of a crime except for insanity or who are undergoing treatment so they can be brought to trial, or patients who suffer from neuropsychiatric, geriatric or other mental illnesses.
Being open and combating the shame and stigma of mental illness “is at the heart of why he did ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ” Dennie Brooks said of her father.
Dean Brooks came to see the “Cuckoo’s Nest” story as an allegorical tale decrying institutional control in general, she said.
The idea of a museum came from those within the hospital community wanting to save the decrepit buildings of the old hospital and the many items within them, Dysart said.
“Then we found out there were basements just filled with stuff,” she said.