How were the suitcases discovered?
The Willard Asylum of the Insane was founded in 1869. In 1995, for budgetary reasons, the State of New York closed the facility which was then know as the Willard Psychiatric Center. Former employees were given the task of emptying the buildings. When Beverly Courtwright opened an attic door she rediscovered racks of suitcases containing the possessions of former patients.
Why were the cases saved?
Some patients resided at Willard for decades and often those who died there were buried in the nearby Willard cemetery. If no family came to claim a patient’s belongings, staff stored them in an attic. Because of the strong caring relationship between the staff and patients, no one wanted to just throw the cases away so a storage system was set up and used until sometime in the late 1960s.
How did the cases get into the collection of the New York State Museum?
Beverly Courtwright, a Willard employee, contacted Craig Williams who is a curator at the New York State Museum and told him of the cases. Craig facilitated the acquisition more than 400 suitcases. Eventually, each case and its contents was catalogued and stabilized for storage in the permanent collection of the museum.
How did you hear about the suitcases?
In 2004 I went to the opening of an exhibit produced by the New York State Museum which featured a small number of the cases and the life histories of the patients who owned them.
How did you gain access to the suitcases?
Part of the New York State Museum’s mandate is to help researchers study elements of New York State history by providing access to the collections. I had extensively photographed abandoned New York State asylum buildings in the 1980s and this project was an extension of that work. I requested and was granted access to the collection, and began photographing the cases in March of 2011.
How many suitcases are in the collection at the New York State Museum?
There are more than 400 suitcases in the collection.
Is it possible to see any of the actual suitcases and their contents?
There was an exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco called “The Changing Face of What is Normal” which opened in April 2013 and closed in September 2014. Along with my photographs, and poems by Dr. Karen Miller, several of the suitcases and their contents were on display. There is currently no way to see the actual suitcases.
Was any attempt made to contact descendants of the owners of the suitcases?
When the Museum put the 2004 exhibit together, they were largely unsuccessful in their attempts to contact family members.
My relative was at Willard. Is his or her suitcase in the collection?
Due to laws governing the release of information related to people who were wards of the state, it is very difficult to access information about Willard patients. The New York State Archives has a comprehensive list of all patients who resided at state-run psychiatric centers, but accessing that information is contingent on proof of a direct relationship to the patient. An interesting resource in regards to this issue is Lin Stuler’s website inmatesofwillard.com
These items seem sacred. How do you feel about disturbing them?
I have great respect for these items. I hope that my strong feelings about these objects is evident in my photographs. I think it is very important to share this amazing collection with a larger audience.
Did the patients have access to cases?
This is perhaps the question I am asked most. The answer is a definitive yes. I have spoken to former Willard employees who had the job of escorting patients to the attic where the cases were stored. The owners of the cases were allowed to retrieve various items and take them back to their rooms.
I feel as if I have seen the suitcases in a different context.
The New York State Museum produced an exhibit that opened in 2004, and is still traveling around the country. A book titled “The Lives They Left Behind, Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic” was published in 2008. While there is some overlap in the subject matter, my approach is completely different. Please check out that project at http:// www.suitcaseexhibit.org/indexhasflash.html. Also, a quick internet search of “Jon Crispin Willard Suitcases” will turn up many sites that have featured the project.
I am interested in knowing more about the patients. Can you share any of their medical histories?
This is also a question that I hear quite a bit. Due to New York State privacy laws it is not possible to know much about the patients outside of what is found in their suitcases. I feel that the suitcases and their contents speak more about these people than their medical histories ever could. I see a different, more personal side of those who lived a portion of their lives at Willard, and it is that side I hope to convey in my work.
Why don’t you use surnames when identifying the owners of the cases?
I have been advised that it would violate New York State law in regards to patient privacy. This is something that I have a fundamental disagreement with. I think it does a disservice to, and further stigmatizes the people who resided at Willard.
Can I visit Willard and what is it today.
Willard is a small town in central New York about 45 minutes northwest of Ithaca and close to the town of Ovid. What was once the Willard Psychiatric Center is now mostly a New York State Department of Corrections facility. The prison grounds are off-limits to visitors, but the Romulus Historical Society does still organize educational events dealing with the psych center. The historical society is located on the main street of the town of Willard and should be contacted before planning a visit. They host an annual tour of some of the old buildings along with displays and lectures by people affiliated with the facility. The cemetery, where hundreds of patients are buried, is located overlooking Seneca Lake on the north side of the main street toward the bottom of the hill. It is open to the public and is well worth a visit. An interesting web site about the cemetery and and attempt to put names on the numbered graves is willardcemeterymemorialproject.com
How did you fund the project?
As no public funds were available to me, I ran two successful Kickstarter campaigns that paid for a portion of the project.
Can you come and speak to our group/organization/university? Can my group display actual prints?
Yes, I am very interested in talking about the project and showing the photographs. Please contact me directly and we can discuss travel expenses and honorariums.
Will there be a book?
I expect and hope so. Whether I can interest a publisher, or self publish is the big question.
Will I be able to see your photographs in galleries and museums.
I am currently working on venues for exhibits. If you know of a museum or gallery in your area that might be interested, please contact me.
What equipment do you use?
All the photographs were taken with full frame Nikon digital cameras. My primary lens is a 105mm Micro Nikkor.
May I use the images/concept for my own art?
I am happy that my photographs might inspire others to create their own art. Please keep in mind that all photographs are copyright and that no portion of them may be used unless express permission is granted by me.
Are the photographs for sale ?
Yes, the photographs are for sale. There is a section of this site where ordering prints is possible.
Can I still contribute to the project?
I initiated a second round of funding on Kickstarter which was a success, but the project will always need outside support. I will always gratefully accept contributions which will help me to continue the work. Additionally, prints are for sale on this site.