The 45th annual meeting of Cheiron was held at the end of June in Irving, Texas – 22 hours didn’t seem like a long enough a drive, so we decided to detour a few hours to swing through St Joseph, Missouri. What, you may be wondering, would draw two historians of psychology so eagerly to Missouri? Why, the Glore Psychiatric Museum of course!
The Glore Psychiatric Museum is the largest psychiatric-focused museum (that the two of us know of) in North America. It is frequently named a “must see” on lists of unusual museums and was named in the book 1,000 Places to See Before you Die in the USA and Canada. It has likewise been featured in a number of televised documentaries on The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, The Discovery Health Channel, PBS, Fox News, The Science Channel, and Superstation WTBS. You can understand our willingness to re-route our drive down to Texas!
The Museum is named for its founder, George Glore, who worked for the Missouri Department of Mental Health. Created originally as an exhibit for Mental Health Awareness Week in 1968 with the help of patients and local carpenters, the collection is now permanently housed in a building on the original property of what was first known as “State Lunatic Asylum No. 2“. It has grown over the years to include four floors of artefacts, photographs, and replicas that focus on the broad histories of psychiatric institutionalization and mental illness as well as the local history of the Asylum in St Joseph. According to the Museum’s website, Glore’s goal for the museum was: “to reduce the stigma associated with psychiatric treatment for patients, their families, and their communities”.
The floors of the Museum are arranged thematically. In broad terms: visitors are introduced to the local history of the institution within a broader explanation of the establishment of asylums in the United States, as well as the history of psychiatric nursing on the main floor; varying treatment practices on the second floor; daily life within the institution and patient artwork on the third floor; and a mix of farming as well as physical and occupational therapies in the basement.
If the quantity of online posts are any indication, it is the second floor which seems to captivate the attention of most visitors – it is also arguably the most controversial portion of the Museum. Upon entering the floor, visitors are first greeted with a display of 1,446 items (ex. nails, safety pins, straight pins, buttons) swallowed by a woman who died during a surgery undertaken to remove said items. Next, are displays dedicated to psychosurgeries (including a misleading link provided between the famous Phineas Gage accident and the origins of psychosurgery), hydrotherapies, fever therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and mechanical restraints. The section of this floor which we found most in need of further context for visitors was the room in which a witch burning at the stake is surrounded by replicas of dungeons, a bain de surprise, a series of Utica cribs (one of which appears to be original based on its attached label), and a rotating chair, among other items. [One of the odd things we also noted on this floor that we can’t quite explain was that the majority of the mannequins representing patients were female with facial features and makeup (the exceptions being those inside the Utica cribs) while those portraying physicians on this floor were all faceless males in white lab coats despite the earlier time periods depicted in some of the exhibits – see example in photos below].
In our humblest opinions, it is the third floor which deserves more attention (and possibly the extensive collection of farming equipment in the basement as well). According to the brochure, the third floor features the daily life of a psychiatric institution – its displays feature rich collections of artefacts related to the kitchen/eating areas, music room, and patient bedrooms. There is also an interesting display of ward rocking chairs arranged chronologically and walls filled with photographs. But the true highlight here is the patient artwork on display. The collection ranges in medium from paintings to pottery to sewing and beyond. Our favourites included a beautiful embroidery piece (pictured at the top of this post) and a collection of 525 letters that a male patient was discovered to have stuffed inside an old television set in 1971 (see left). Though displayed anonymously (presumably to protect the identities of the individual artists), the collection is truly remarkable – both for its breadth and its variety of artistic mediums.
The Glore Psychiatric Museum is – without doubt – worth a visit. And as a bonus for making the trip to Missouri, be sure to leave time to visit the gift shop (honestly, how often do you encounter a History of Psychiatry gift shop?!).
A few additional photos from our historical “roadtrip”:
Electroconvulsive therapy display (note the mannequin faces)