In 1995, the New York State Office of Mental Health closed the doors of the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. Located near the Seneca Lake in the town called Willard in New York.
Shortly after the asylum was closed, Bev Courtwright, an employee of the hospital was assigned to search through the building to inspect what should be salvaged and what not. While searching the attic, Courtwright stumbled upon a rather fascinating and poignant discovery: a collection of 400 suitcases consisting of the personal belongings of the patients from decades earlier.
The cases had been placed into storage when the patients were admitted to the hospital between 1910 and the 1960s.
New York State Museum in Albany obtained the cases and appointed the prolific photographer Jon Crispin to document the suitcases and its contents. Recently we had the pleasure to interview Crispin and have a closer look into this remarkable project.
“I was living in Ithaca, NY at the time and my friend Tania Werbizky asked if I had ever seen the abandoned buildings at the Willard Psychiatric Center. I hadn’t, and so she and I drove to the site. I was immediately taken by the spirit of the place.” said Crispin about his first experience with the asylum.
Bearing in mind there are roughly 400 suitcases it took a while for each of them to be captured:
“I started shooting the Willard Suitcases in March of 2011 and finished in November of 2015. I am still editing the images, and expect to be doing so for quite some time. It is a massive collection.”
It is a poignant and fascinating project
“I am very fortunate that, through my photos, I can share something about the lives of the residents of Willard, apart from their having been institutionalized for perceived a mental illness.” says Crispin
We asked Crispin to tell us more about the owners of the suitcases:
“The suitcases are in the permanent collection of the New York State Museum. Each case has been cataloged and conserved by the museum staff, and there are complete records about the owners of the cases.The New York State Archives has the (mostly) complete medical records of every Willard patient since the late 1860s. Dr. Karen Miller is a poet and psychiatrist, and she has had access to those records. She and I talk quite often about some of the owners of the suitcases. But, and this is very important, I choose to see these folks through what they brought with them to Willard, rather than through their diagnosis.”
Crispin runs two successful Kickstarter project, which helps to fund the project. The first one entitled Willard Suitcases: Unpacking The Rest funded photographing roughly 80 cases, while the second one Willard Asylum Suitcase Documentation, helps Crispin to fund shooting the remaining cases.