By Nick Hoffman, former Chief Curator
History Museum at the Castle
NOTE: Nick Hoffman has left the museum since this article was first posted.
A new exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton local history in hopes of stimulating community conversations about mental health and helping to remove stigma. Asylum: Out of the Shadows explores the history of mental and behavioral health told through the Outagamie County Asylum for the Insane.
The exhibit features rare artifacts and photographs from the facility and provides an honest look at the operations of county and state mental health hospitals. A $25,000 Arts & Culture grant from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region helped tell these important and often difficult new stories with cutting-edge exhibit technology.
Outagamie County’s asylum opened in 1890 as a place to house people deemed “chronically insane,” which was determined by the length of time they had shown symptoms. People admitted to the Asylum were held for long-term care. About 480 people were admitted to the Asylum during its first 40 years of operations. Very few of those committed were released back into society.
Most patients genuinely needed help, but evidence shows the system was often abused. For instance, women were sometimes discarded by spouses for being vocal about politics or asserting independence.
Visitors have the option of downloading a cellphone app or renting an iPad with a guided tour of the exhibit featuring eight real narratives of people who lived and worked at the Asylum. The biographies were painstakingly researched by museum staff, interns, and volunteers, and brought to life by actors from Attic Theater. The whole package was developed by app developer Matthew Reetz and audio support by Lynne Whitehorn.