A photograph from Jon Crispin’s collection “Willard Suitcases,” which will be exhibited from Feb. 23 through April 2 at the gallery at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth. Photo by Jon Crispin

When the Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region of New York closed in 1995, an employee was tasked with going through the building to see if anything should be saved.

In the attic behind a locked door were more than 400 suitcases. Some were empty, but others held the possessions of former patients from the early to mid-1900s who had long since died.

The suitcases and contents were offered to the New York State Museum, which placed them in its permanent collection. That’s where photographer Jon Crispin first saw them, in a 2003 exhibit.

Years later, Crispin got access to photograph the suitcases for a project and, since 2011, his photos of the Willard Suitcases have been shown across the country.

Beginning Thursday and running through April 2, they will be on display at the gallery of St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth.

The exhibit will feature photos of old music records and books, bottles that once held medicine or personal care products, and watches and other valuables from a bygone era when people with mental illness were treated harshly.


Crispin, in an email, said he didn’t really expect his photographs to resonate the way they have.

“When I was given access to the collection by the New York State Museum, I just thought it would be interesting to photograph these ephemeral objects and their connection to the patients,” he said. “Fairly early on as the project got attention, folks with experience in mental health began telling me that my photographs helped to destigmatize mental illness by showing the Willard patients as real human beings with lives that many people could relate to.”

A photograph from Jon Crispin’s collection “Willard Suitcases.” Photo by Jon Crispin

Church pastor the Rev. Joshua Hill said the exhibit is powerful because it “raises profound questions about the evolution of mental health care and access while breaking stereotypes and disrupting the taboo of conversation about mental health.”

It also gives voice to those whose voices may not have always been heard clearly enough,” he said.

Crispin, who grew up in Pennsylvania now lives in Massachusetts (and has a brother who lives in Cape Elizabeth and is a member of St. Alban’s Church), previously was given access in the 1980s to document abandoned asylums in New York, a project that was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Similar institutions existed across the country, including in Maine, but have long since closed after advocates pushed for deinstitutionalization in the wake of reports of abuse and neglect of patients.

Hill said he hopes the exhibit sparks a conversation about mental health, and the church has events planned around the topic.

On March 4, from 9:30-11:30 a.m., the church will open the gallery for mental health providers to view the exhibit and have a discussion afterward.

On March 29, the Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, will talk about his book “With Sighs Too Deep for Words,” that deals with his own battle with clinical depression – a diagnosis that likely would have put in him an institution had he lived decades earlier.

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