The Willard Asylum Suitcases

Originally posted here

The Willard Asylum suitcases are an inclusion to The Museum suggested by conceptual object artist Dawn Cole who works on WW2.

This is an incredible collection – apparently 400 suitcases of former patients of the asylum, found in the attic of the building several decades later in 1995. It’s suggested that these are the possessions patients brought with them on entry to the institution with which they were perhaps never reunited. It’s almost overwhelming to view the accompanying photographs and their poignancy strikes harder the more the eye scans the objects in each case shown.

These photographs are sumptuous – beautifully curated, and I read in one comment some doubt about authenticity. I think this seed of doubt is a product of the curation process. Is there something which goes against the grain of authenticity in these photos, and challenges belief? Certainly there is a sense of the ‘editing’ hand at work. Where is the sense of chaos and distress that might accompany admission to an asylum one might ask? And yet – isn’t the process of packing one of ordering, sifting and deciding, and might not relatives have helped? The reasons for entering an asylum were perhaps also social and moral at times and mental illness poorly understood – we can’t make assumptions on a supposition about a state of mind. So many questions are laid open – and of course the ambivalence shown in the comment raises the importance of documentation and narrative. What are we being shown exactly? At what stage in the story are we?

My own desire shifts between wishing to see photographs of the discovery – the attic and the suitcases as they were – and feeling grateful for the opportunity to see the beautiful and sensitive work of the curators and photographers.

I am extremely grateful to Dawn for suggesting this rich find – so many angles for object artists to bring to and draw from. I’m looking forward to your responses.