From The Republican
By George Lenker
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
At one time, the Northampton State Hospital was the largest employer in the city.
So it’s no wonder that that now defunct and razed site holds an ongoing fascination for residents. This interest should be even more piqued by a new exhibit at Historic Northampton this month.
“Vanished: The Hospital on the Hill” tells the story of the Northampton State Hospital via the words of former employees, photographer Stan Sherer’s shots, and historical photographs from the collection of Historic Northampton. This exhibition, which runs Feb. 8-March 7, grew out of an oral history project in 1992. Sherer talked about the exhibit last week.
First tell me briefly about the oral history project that initiated this?
In the late 1990s, a group of employees at the Northampton State Hospital approached the Public History Program at UMass with a request to assist in having their stories preserved. Michael Moore, then a graduate student in the Public History Program, began the process of recording the oral histories of as many employees, and former employees, as possible.
When and why did you take photos of the hospital? What drew you to it?
After Michael was under way with this, I joined the project as a photographer. I felt a project like this needed photographs as well as text. There were so many stories to record and we needed to have the faces and the visual environment behind the stories.
Is there an overarching theme to the collection?
The overarching theme to the collection is each employee who was interviewed had complex stories and viewpoints. It was not a simple matter of the hospital being a good or bad place. We tried to paint the hospital’s complex history within the context of medical treatments of the times.
What is Michael’s role?
Michael’s role was the to interview the employees and gather their oral histories. The transcripts of these interviews were sent to the Massachusetts State Archive. Michael wrote the text for the exhibition and catalog. We received support from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities (now called the Mass Foundation). The exhibition toured the state from the early 1990s through late 1990s.
What has struck you most about both the words and the photos?
I was struck by the deep sense of caring and commitment from the people who worked at the hospital. Their work was terribly difficult and most did the best they could.
Why do you think preserving all this is important?
It has been 30 years since the closing of the State Hospitals. The plan was for many of the patients to be cared for by community services, live in halfway houses, etc. However, as the state budgets shrank, so did money for community services. Patients were living on the street, many unable to obtain their medications. As the years passed, prisons took over the role of the state mental hospitals. In many cases, a large percentage of the prison population is comprised of psychiatric cases. This exhibition draws attention to the fact that we have not come close to achieving adequate care of the mentally ill.