Summer Institute Guest Day Explores the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health

By Angela Newport


If you know Janis Wurgler of the Summer Institute leadership team, you know she has a knack for inspired ideas. And, if you know Krina Lee of Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, you know that she has a knack for helping good things come together. It's thanks to these ladies' collaboration that our Summer Institute Guest Day took place at the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health. Ostensibly, the intention of Guest Day is to introduce future participants to the OWP experience and provide all with rich writing inspiration, but all of the nearly 30 writers assembled found that this experience was about much more.

Welcomed and hosted by Dennie Brooks, a museum board member, and Heather Woodward, OWP alum and museum educator liaison, participants were treated to a self-guided tour of the interactive museum and a panel discussion with members of the board and hospital staff. As the group debriefed and shared writing inspired by the exhibits and artifacts, it was apparent that all would have enjoyed even more time to explore and think and write in the space. Our perceptions about what a state mental health institution is and the people who have been served there were beginning to shift. With this greater awareness also emerged greater compassion. Further, Heather, who partners with and develops museum-related curriculum and field trip opportunities for interested educators and their students, provided all in attendance with model lesson plans and mentor texts for our future use. Where prior to the opportunity to explore the museum ourselves we may have been curious about just how such a field trip would augment our curriculum, given our tour and her materials, inspiration took hold. Guiding students to use the mentor texts and images in the space, the stories of first hand accounts from multiple perspectives - all of these could inspire student writers to explore and process their own perceptions.

Lunch was hosted by Dr. Greg Roberts, current hospital superintendent, in the Cremains Memorial Garden where he explained the historical background of the space, as well as the dramatic shifts that have taken place in both how mental health is clinically treated and how society has viewed those in need of such support. It is his vision that educators have the potential to affect transformation in our students' perceptions by inviting them to write and think and learn about mental illness. For, this is exactly what he and his staff are working to do - teach others about how mental illness is like any other illness, treatable.

At the close of the afternoon, participants, guests, and our hosts gathered to share thoughts about our time at Oregon State Hospital. It was evident that a shift had taken place for all of us. The alchemy of history, place, and writing indeed produced interesting contemplation and conversation, as well as numerous seeds for future writing. It also did something we may not have expected - it transformed our perceptions about society's understanding of mental health. You see, Janis and Krina really do have a knack for making good things happen.

For additional information about the Museum of Mental Health and opportunities for field trips and curriculum email