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Asylum exhibit tour stirs emotions

Posted on Feb 21, 2017, by

The Community Foundation staff and some of its donors had the opportunity to tour what went on at the Asylum, out of the public view.

The History Museum at the Castle invited us to tour the exhibit “Asylum: Out of the Shadows” on Monday, a day when the museum is closed to the public. The exhibit does tell of horrible activities at the county-owned home for the mentally ill, developmentally disabled and elderly in a much darker time in health care.

Panels in the exhibit tell of forced sterilization and practitioners using insulin, hot and cold water and electric shock as therapy for depression. Trust funds kept for the support of residents were pilfered by administrators for personal gain. In its 40 years of operation, few of the about 480 people committed there ever walked free again.

The first-person accounts of the residents and staff members come alive through testimonials performed by members of Attic Theater and available to listen to on your smartphone through headphones by downloading a free app.

A $25,000 Arts & Culture grant from the Community Foundation made use of the cutting-edge exhibit technology possible.

Community Foundation donor Shelby Knezel listened to a nurse tell of her experiences at the asylum.

“I’m so impressed with the courage it would have taken at that time to speak out,” Shelby said.

The first-person accounts, combined with the collaborative role local mental health agencies played in providing information about the mental illnesses and modern treatments, makes the exhibit more effective.

“I was almost overwhelmed,” she said.

Matt Carpenter, executive director of the History Museum at the Castle, said he expected to endure some losses in admissions by deciding to take on the serious and challenging topic of life in the Outagamie County Asylum.

After all, the museum was coming off a year that included the very fun and popular neon signs exhibit, so attendance for 2016 was likely to fall short.

In fact, Carpenter said, 3,400 visitors have already seen and attendance is running 21% above the same period last year and 42% above the five-year average.

Brewster Village, the county-owned nursing facility located near where the asylum once stood, couldn’t present a sharper contrast. Its approach of designing “neighborhoods” of patient rooms has brought designers from around the country to study it.

Shelby said a relative’s stay at Brewster Village was a very positive experience, in sharp contrast to the story told by “Asylum: Out of the Shadows.”

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