Asylum: Out of the Shadows

Some of the first residents and employees of the Outagamie County Asylum posed for this image in about 1890. Image courtesy of the History Museum at the Castle.

The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton will open an unprecedented exhibit on November 17. “Asylum: Out of the Shadows” will be the first attempt by a Wisconsin museum to interpret the evolution of treatment for people with mental health problems. The exhibit will explore behavioral and mental health told through the history of the Outagamie County Asylum.

Curator Nick Hoffman says that while the content may be challenging, it is a crucial conversation for our community to have.

“As state and even local budgets fluctuate, that can have so much impact on how we as a society care for our most vulnerable and how we support mental health agencies,” he says. “Those decisions don’t just impact the facilities and the people they serve, they impact all of our lives.”


The exhibit will be divided into six thematic sections, each focusing on an element of life at the asylum. Visitors will see rare artifacts including an electroshock therapy machine, ink blots and nursing uniforms. Exploring the evolution of patient care from 1890 to present-day, the exhibit touches on the evolving uses of electroshock therapy, straightjackets, counseling and medication. Visitors will enter recreated rooms of the historic asylum building by walking into an isolation room, day room and even a doctor’s office.

By focusing on the individuals who lived and worked at the asylum, the exhibit strives to personalize the stories and remove stigma. Visitors will be able to download a cellphone tour application where they will select one of eight individuals to follow through the exhibit, including real employees and residents.

Hoffman says this exhibit will explain the changes in how society defines and treats mental illness, as well as challenges perspectives on mental health.

“We want to break down stigma,” he says. “The exhibit shows where we’ve been, but hopefully it starts a conversation on where we are going.”

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Arts & Culture

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