Willard suitcase photo exhibit remembers past patients

By Gretchen Andersen

The 427 suitcases found in the dusty attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center carry more than… The 427 suitcases found in the dusty attic of the Willard Psychiatric Center carry more than just their weight.

Filled with mementos, letters, postcards, pictures and more, the suitcases — discovered in 1995 — hold memories of the many patients admitted to the asylum.

In connection with the Willard Suitcase Exhibit, Matthew Murray, the photographer of abandonedamerica.org, lectured at the Frick Fine Arts Building last night about what the patients went through while imprisoned.

Murray also presented his own work featuring abandoned asylums. Pictures of dated, worn-down institutions similar to asylums dressed the walls.

One photograph, entitled “the way of the future,” showcased what seemed to be a dilapidated bathing area, with paint-chipped walls adjacent to a pearl-white bathtub.

Murray talked about the gruesome treatments and surgeries for mental illness throughout history.

He acknowledged that his work is a bit different from that of traditional photographers because it takes him to run-down factories, asylums, shipyards, and mills. He said he is trying to get to the asylums before they are demolished.

“You are losing architecture, history and opportunity to know the past,” Murray said.

Rachel Freund, director of community outreach for Mental Health America in Allegheny County, had been working on bringing the exhibit to Pittsburgh for three years and helped organize the event. She met Murray about three years ago while in Harrisburg and liked his work.

“I thought, ‘What a great complement to this exhibit,’” Freund said. “His work gets you to think about it as more than just a place patients went to. These asylums held thousands and thousands of people and greatly affected their lives. And his work helps us to feel that more concretely.”

More than 60 people attended the event, including community members and students.

Marc Felman attended the lecture and exhibit with his wife.

“I just thought the idea was really interesting. These people got sucked in and often never returned,” he said. “They lost their belongings. It’s interesting that people were able to find all this information about them.”

Fred Will, a volunteer at the event, agreed.

“It puts a face to mental illness. It puts mental illness into perspective,” Will said. “People are not aware of all the facts about the illness.”

The Willard Suitcase Exhibit is a month-long event, ending Sept. 24. Admission is free and hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“Mental illness is a part of life,” Freund said. “We want to honor the people who disappeared and suffered while in these institutions. Recovery is possible, and the system is changing and things are getting better.”