SALEM, Ore. - A 130-year-old mental institution might seem like an odd place for a museum. But historians and mental health advocates have fought to preserve and tell the Oregon State Hospital’s long and sordid history.
Starting this month, the public can tour a section of the restored main hospital building which was featured in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Dean Brooks probably knows more about the Oregon State Hospital than anyone else. He was the Superintendent of the Salem mental institution for more than 25 years.
Brooks is now 96 years old. And what does he think about turning a part of the hospital into a museum?
“I think it’s needed,” he says. “Over-needed.”
Brooks put this hospital on the map forever when he allowed the filming of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” on the hospital grounds. He even got a small part in the movie.
Brooks grew to appreciate the message of Ken Kesey’s novel about authority and powerlessness. So he said “yes” when the film’s producers approached him about using the hospital as a set.
“They wanted to make a movie where real people had lived and died,” Brooks explains. “I was quite ready to say ‘yes, let’s do that, and do that here.’ And we did.”
And besides, Brooks thought it would be good for the patients to experience a movie production. Some even served as extras.
But the decision to open the hospital’s doors to Hollywood drew criticism. Brooks says other mental health professionals blasted him, saying that, “I had sold psychiatry down the river. That I had set us back 50 years.”
“Not so,” says Brooks. “Not so at all.”
The movie went on to win the 1976 Best Picture Oscar and a slew of other awards.
Brooks knew right away there’d be interest in memorabilia from the film. For example, you know that hydrotherapy unit that Chief Bromden uses to break free in the movie’s climactic scene? That thing’s been sitting in a hospital storage room all these years says Dennie Brooks, Dean Brooks’ daughter.
“It’s in remarkably good shape for having gone through a window,” she says.
But the exhibits at the Oregon State Hospital Museum are about more than just the movie. Volunteer Hazel Patton of Salem says visitors will learn about the history of mental health treatment.
“Some of it’s not going to sound too good. But at the time they did the very best they knew how, and they did what they thought was best for the patients.”
And hospital staff saved more than just movie props over the years. Patton says closets and basements yielded a treasure trove of artifacts. And she says visitors will get the unvarnished story of life at one of the nation’s most notorious mental health institutions.
“The administration has been wonderful in cooperating with us,” Patton says. “All they’ve said is ‘Tell the truth.’ And that’s exactly what we are doing.”
In the four decades since “Cuckoo’s Nest”, the Oregon State Hospital has undergone a dramatic facelift. The state completed a $458 million upgrade earlier this year. But the institution remains under federal scrutiny for allegedly violating patients’ civil rights. Workers complain of staffing shortages that put them at risk of patient violence.
The ongoing saga has drawn the attention of volunteer Kathryn Dysart, who’s in charge of assembling an exhibit on life at the hospital. She says like others at the museum, she originally signed up to help because she was interested in historical preservation. But now, “We’ve become completely captured by the story of changes in mental health and mental illness treatments in this country. And we’ve become serious advocates for open discussions about what’s the right thing to do for people who suffer such debilitating illnesses.”
One sign that the State Hospital is still a sore subject? On the day I toured the museum, volunteers were removing graffiti from a door where someone scrawled “Mental Health Cartel.”
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