We are talking about the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St Joseph, Missouri, once known and operating as the State Lunatic Asylum No. 2. This place was a proper psychiatric hospital and the things that went on there are just as scary as you can possibly imagine.
The Glore’s purpose is to showcase the building’s 130-year stint as government-run mental institution and through that history, beginning in 1874, the evolution and progression of the treatment of mental illness in the US. Sadly, mental health was not always something tackled with sensitivity; much of its history is morally cloudy and the museum is a prime example of this.
The museum takes its name from George Glore, who spent 41 years working for the Missouri Department of Mental Health. Glore was an avid student of history and hence created a program at the asylum where patients created art installations replicating 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century mental health treatment devices. One could argue that asking mentally ill people to recreate the oft torturous mechanisms once used to ‘treat’ them is anything but kosher, but this is what Glore did and what the museum now showcases. It is also part of what makes it the creepiest museum on the planet.
In time, the state asked Glore to expand his programme, calling on the patients to make their own independent artistic creations as a form of therapy, and a combination of both these things, plus actual treatment mechanisms, make up the bulk of the institution’s unusual collection.
The original asylum building is now part of the city’s prison, but a more recent section of the asylum, including a once fully operational morgue, houses the museum and its contents.
Some of the particularly saddening items on view include lobotomy instruments, the devastating tools used in the 1940s and 50s to incise and scrape the prefrontal lobe of the brain in the surgical ‘treatment’ for mental illness. The procedure, which was very often performed without patient consent, was meant to calm the mind, but really ended leaving patients a fraction of their former selves, taking them back to infant stage.
Other torturous devices include a wooden chamber called The Wheel, which was basically a treadmill surrounded by walls upon which patients were locked by doctors, and the infamous Tranquilliser Chair.
There are also paintings and more traditional forms of art made by the patients in their art therapy programme. What is perhaps the most thought-inducing display on show is a mosaic made up of 1,446 safety pins, buttons, nails and other non-edible objects all removed over time from the stomach of a female patient who suffered from a compulsive swallowing disorder called pica. The woman made the mosaic from all the objects, perhaps a full-circle therapeutic means to help deal with with the illness.
The study and treatment of mental illness has a dark past, and the Glore bravely puts this on display. It also reminds visitors that art can provide hope and healing. Nonetheless, it is a gloomy place, but gloom can be an incredible teacher and the lessons learned here are thought-provoking and important.