Medical History Museum "Rehumanizes" Specimens Of Patients With Mental Illness

Medical History Museum "Rehumanizes" Specimens Of Patients With Mental Illness

“The goal is to give people back a voice that they no longer have,” said Sarah Halter, executive director of the museum.

Preserved brains, hearts and tumors that, for years, illustrated the physical impact of mental illness on the body were due for an update.

The specimens—collected from the patients of Central State Hospital (formerly the Indiana Hospital for the Insane)—are now accompanied by a fresh set of labels that paint a clearer picture of the people they once belonged to. The goal was to “rehumanize the specimens.” 

The unveiling of the collection will take place on July 9th in Indianapolis at the Old Pathology Building of Central State Hospital, which became the Indiana Medical History Museum in 1971.

Addressing Stigma

“There is certainly stigma attached to mental illness today, but in the past this sometimes ran much deeper in society,” according to the museum’s website. “Patients at Central State Hospital and others like it across the country were frequently ostracized by their families and communities.”

The project to learn more about the patients behind the specimens, and to draw more attention to them, began in 2015 and was a collective effort by historians, archivists, medical students and pathologists.

By piecing together the lives of the patients and sharing this information with visitors, the museum is highlighting the humanity behind each specimen. Especially in a setting—the former “Hospital for the Insane”—where these people were treated with little of it.

“The goal is to give people back a voice that they no longer have,” said Sarah Halter, executive director of the museum. Halter emphasized the profound impact of displaying labels that give a more complete background accompanying each specimen—including the name of the individual.

One image provided by the Smithsonian magazine shows both old and new labels, side by side, next to a preserved brain.

The difference is clear. The old label gave a clinical description and very little detail about the individual: “Male, Age: 69.” With the new label, we learn his name: Charles L. and a brief history of the man: a farmer and father of six “described by those who knew him as a kind and considerate person.”

Visitors Can Find Out The Back Story Of Each Specimen

The museum goes into further detail on its website, where visitors can seek more information about each specimen and the individual including where they grew up and why they were admitted to the hospital.

“We want visitors to realize that these were real people,” said Halter. “We’re all impacted by mental illness whether directly or indirectly… We might have some impact in the community through telling these stories, so we’re continuing to dig and look for more information so that we can add narratives to the collection as we go.”

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