One Flew into the Cuckoo’s Nest: A photography exhibition documents the forgotten history of mental hospitals

The abandoned mental asylums in Shawn May’s photographs are filled with rusted gurneys, exposed pipes, cracked paint, and bird droppings, but May wants viewers to take away more than just a sense of awe at the magnificently decaying vistas. He wants to cast a light on “a part of U.S. history that’s being lost”: the history of treatment for the mentally ill. Unlike other dark chapters in our history such as slavery, May explains, the often horrific conditions at mental hospitals have received little attention and are rarely given more than a footnote in history books.

May first discovered abandoned asylums in the course of his high school urban explorations, which also led him inside old power plants, factories and other “abandonments.” During his junior year he became serious about asylums, travelling up and down the East Coast from his native Atlanta to find and photograph run-down hospitals, mostly in rural areas, which he located through historic registers or word of mouth. The next step was getting inside. “I have friends who go the legitimate route,” May says. “I break in.” This could be difficult at times; May once travelled to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, every weekend for three months to scope out an abandoned asylum before finally getting inside. “If there’s not a way in, that’s not going to stop me,” he laughs.

May, who is only 18 years old, graduated from high school last spring and since then has devoted himself fully to his asylum project. Six months ago Alma Princip, a frequent collaborator with Bridgeport arts collective Lumpen, came across May’s page on the popular photo website Flickr. Princip, who shares May’s interest in urban exploration, had seen a lot of other asylum photography with what she describes as an “ooh, creepy” vibe, but May’s stood out from the crowd. “His are not just good photos,” she says. “They’re very objective about a part of history that’s not talked about.” Last Saturday May’s first exhibition of photos, curated by Princip, opened at Lumpen’s headquarters, the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The exhibition includes about twenty of May’s photos–stunning shots of walls, doors, beds, corridors, and auditoriums inside buildings so time-ravaged and weather-worn, you can practically feel the texture. In addition to the photos the exhibition includes a collection of objects May salvaged from the ruins. Against one wall is a pile of tattered books with titles like “Theology and Sanity,” “Dependents, Defectives, Delinquents,” and “Journal of Insanity.” Elsewhere are a handcuff-like restraining device with an accompanying brochure, a machine for draining fluids from patients, and a padded coffin, which a panel on the wall explains was an unusually humane form of burial for patients who often went into the ground in nothing better than a shoddy wooden box. Perhaps most striking of all is a small glass jar holding several large pieces of brain matter. It’s hard to tell exactly how old some of these objects are. May says the asylums he visited were closed anytime from a year ago to three or four decades ago.

Even as the results of his explorations are displayed on the walls of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, May sees his asylum project as far from over. While in Chicago for the opening, he took an evening to go down to Kankakee, Illinois, and explore an old hospital there. A lot of his attention is focused on a book on the subject of asylums. “I’m really going where this leads me,” he says. “I could probably do this for another ten years.”

“Ward 7: America’s Abandoned Asylums,” Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan Ave. Through January 27.