Library of Dust

The hospital is decaying. Crumbled plaster rests as rubble on
linoleum floors that have burst at the seams, succumbing to the
pressure of a buckling foundation. Yielding paint sloughs from the
walls. Evidence of patients once treated here lies scattered-a deck
of cards, a sodden book, a rusted razor blade. It seems impossible
that the heart of this institution still functions, that somewhere
at the end of a long corridor doctors and nurses still practice
medicine. In these deserted wings, part of the Oregon State Insane
Asylum as it stood in 1883, the only hint of life is a collection
of crude copper urns that house the cremated remains of those who
died here-thousands of patients treated over a century’s
time-stacked three deep on plain wooden shelves.

When photographer and visual artist David Maisel, best known for
documenting human impact on natural landscapes (‘Aerial Dreams,’
May/June), first learned of the cremains 20 months ago, he sensed
that they would be the centerpiece of his next project. ‘I’ve spent
many years obsessively photographing copper mines . . . so there’s
something about copper that I gravitate toward,’ he says. ‘But I
didn’t have any sense of what these canisters would really look
like.’ Compelled, Maisel wrote a letter explaining his work to the
institution, located in Salem and now known as the Oregon State
Hospital. To his surprise, permission to see the remains was

Abandoned or forgotten by relatives, the canisters house the
unclaimed remains of patients treated between 1883 and the 1970s.
Left to an institution not well equipped to provide long-term
storage, the remains accumulated in a basement room until 1976,
when they were interred in an underground vault where moisture went
to work on the copper cans, destroying precious labels. A few years
ago, upon discovering the damage, the cash-strapped hospital
transferred the remains into a storage room in a shut-down wing. In
2005 a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials published by the
Portland-based Oregonian drew attention to the struggling
hospital, Oregon’s primary public psychiatric institution, and made
the displaced remains a symbol of state neglect and pejorative
public attitudes toward mental health throughout history.

Maisel saw more than decay or mistreatment. Left to languish
over time, the copper cans and their contents have literally
erupted with color: marine blues, steely crimsons, salted grays and
whites. Mineral crusts and burnished colors bleed gorgeously from
the welded seams. ‘I’m not a believer,’ Maisel says soberly. ‘But
they have a kind of continuity . . . a sense that the individual is
somehow continuing, even if it’s in an inorganic state.’ During
Maisel’s first visit to the hospital, as he considered the
canisters’ inhabitants, a young man on a cleanup crew sent in from
a local penitentiary paused for a moment at the door and peered

‘The library of dust,’ he whispered.

Maisel has since arranged three more trips to the hospital, each
time spending several days photographing the canisters in natural
light to avoid augmenting or altering the images. He is a careful
archivist, cataloging the photos with respect to the numbers
stamped into the lids (ranging from 01 to 5,118). The reverence
with which he approaches the project has fostered a positive
relationship with the hospital, which has mobilized on the heels of
the Oregonian coverage to acknowledge its imperfect past
as part of crafting a better future. The state is moving along with
plans for a new facility, and the hospital has invited citizens to
share ideas for a proper memorial for the remains.

In an essay about the project posted on his
the artist articulates one vision of the library as a ‘microcosm of
the hospital itself’: each canister assigned to a numbered shelf,
analogous to indistinguishable rooms in partitioned wards-an emblem
of the institutionalization of identity, in which names become
numbers and personal details slip away. The canisters, however,
seem to resist this loss, each eruption of color and crust
suggesting an individual identity that’s both ethereal and

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