Friday, 31 January 2014



How often have you left your toothbrush at a hotel or at a friend’s house? You probably forgot about this occasion soon after you purchased a new one at the drugstore; by then, the hotel staff or your host likely had discarded the remains of your stay. In the case of this week’s object, however, this cabinet of toothbrushes was abandoned -- then left untouched for thirty years -- in the Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. Its reappearance in the form of a photograph is at once beautiful, haunting, and thought-provoking.

The image of this cabinet, exquisitely photographed by Christopher Payne, is part of his collection Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. To document this and other forgotten objects and spaces in state mental institutions, Payne visited seventy institutions across the US over the course of six years. As Payne discusses in Asylum’s Project Statement, the collection explores the the common assumption of historical mental institutions as places of “nightmarish squalor and abuse” -- alongside the reality that these same hospitals were once “monuments of civic pride” that were a prevalent feature of the 19th- and early 20th-century American healthcare system.

Christopher Payne, Patient Toothbrushes, Hudson River State Hospital

What fascinates me about these toothbrushes and the about other sets of objects and spaces in the collection is the feeling of abruptness -- an abrupt and sudden end to an era. From the everyday (like the pairs of bowling shoes in the Rockland State Hospital or the sauerkraut vats in Danville State hospital) to the grim (a straightjacket from Logansport State Hospital or the autopsy theatre in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital), the spaces look as if they could have been just left for the night -- minus the layers of dust and peeling wallpaper. In reality, like the toothbrushes these objects have been out of service for years. Why were these objects left in place but out of sight? How can you cope with and interpret a time by simply walking away from it?

The abandonment of these objects also makes me wonder what else lies behind closed doors -- not just in former mental institutions, but also in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, or in any other kind of common space. What other kinds of history have we “walked away” from, leaving archetypes of its memory but failing to attempt to grasp what really happened during those times?

Christopher Payne, Breezeway, Taunton State Hospital, MA

To get back to Payne’s images, which of these are most compelling to you? How do they reinforce or upend your notions of mid-century North American mental health facilities?

For more, please check out Christopher Payne’s Asylum website. A New York Times Lens blog post from November 2009 titled "Emptied but Still Secret" also provided an excellent snapshot of Payne’s creative process and the collection.


  1. Haunting post Katherine! But that's a good thing because this is certainly a fascinating subject to explore in art and photography.
    I was most struck by the photograph of the room holding all the abandoned urns. Who were those people? Why did no one come for them? What will be done with the urns? Will they just sit there forever?
    It just blows me away that these places, as you discussed, literally just seem like everyone picked up one day and decided to never use those rooms again but leave everything in tact. I wonder why members of these institutions just decide to close the doors to rooms no longer needed, rather than renovating them or re-purposing them. I remember once coming across, in one of my many internet browsing sprees, a photography exhibition of a similar kind that documented old farm houses that were just abandoned but that had all the furniture, bedding, curtains, etc. right where the last inhabitants left them. It's amazing how well objects are preserved throughout time without any human interjection. I think this kind of preservation offers a truly unique experience for a viewer--you are literally looking in on untouched history. Nothing treated, conserved, modified, cleaned. It truly is haunting, as you can't help but wonder what happened to the people? Did they just fall off the face of the earth? Especially in institutions like mental health facilities, which often get a slightly creepy, sinister reputation (not helped by hollywood of course). They are the kinds of places where one wonders, what really goes on behind those walls? I found Payne's photographs to inspire in me a surprising emotional response...I was intrigued, a little saddened, and creeped out all in one go.
    I have a close friend who actually just became a psychiatric nurse and she has worked in many small town facilities that have been around for a long time. Based on some of the stories she has shared about these places, Payne's photographs do a very good job of capturing some of the hidden histories of these institutions. I shared your article with my nurse friend, so I'm curious to see what she thinks!
    Excellent post!

  2. Brittney, I could not have expressed better my emotional reading of this images (and objects). There is also something almost visceral and haunting about these objects and the "landscapes" of the mental institution/hospital as well. Of course, I am sure that I am also responding this way due to how such institutions are constructed in various mediated texts (as a fan of Supernatural, I can vouch for media influence, at least partially, of course :). Thank you, Katherine, for opening the discussion about this. I think it also fits very nicely with curatorial practice - as this is a space without curation (an abandoned space where objects become artefacts in time not because they have been touched and rearranged but because of the opposite).

  3. Irina, I love your point about the lack of curation with these objects that have become artifacts precisely because they are "uncurated". Very interesting perspective to consider artifacts and questions of authenticity. These uncurated non-museum spaces are certainly "authentic" in the sense that they (presumably) have not been touched since they were left and essentially preserve entire scenes from the history of which they are a part. Kind of the opposite of how we typically view museum objects, which are often viewed as "authentic" precisely because they reside in museum setting.

  4. Yes! And now that these "uncurated" spaces have been curated in this photography book... how does it change our perception of each object/image when we view it as a part of this particular body of images?

  5. This link for an new exhibition on mental health at Exploratorium in San Francisco - the tumblr feed has some interesting comments about objects which I believe complement some of our thoughts on this topic!