Life in a Box / Pictures from the Asylum

There was a popular trend in museums a few years back to make traveling “trunk” exhibits that could be checked out by schools or other groups. The idea of a museum-in-a-box was to bring some educational programing of the museum to people (usually children) who might not be able (or inclined) to visit otherwise–and to do it the way museums do best, through objects.

Jon Crispin‘s work photographing the 400 suitcases left in the attic of a New York insane asylum  from 1910 to 1960 is perhaps more like life-in-a-box. The cases include the expected items a person might need when leaving home for a few months: family photos, toothbrushes, a sewing kit. Then there are the unusual, telling tidbits: the paperweight from the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, a set of yellow and white checkered drinking glasses, a miniature souvenir bat, a silver soup spoon, silk flowers, a World War II uniform. One man brought his zither.

Crispin’s photos are sparse, haunting tableaux of lives interrupted. The average stay in New York’s Willard Asylum was 30 years. “Looking at these suitcases, you just get the idea that that these people really had lives outside before they went to Willard,” says Crispin.


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