Tonawanda News


July 15, 2013

BOOK NOOK: History, art mingle in 'Abandoned Asylums of New England'

I was looking through “Abandoned Asylums of New England,” my mind mostly occupied by the photographs that make up the bulk of this “photographic journey” by John Gray, when I abruptly turned the page and came face-to-face with a quote that hit me like a kick to the stomach.

“In the light of our present knowledge,” it read, “the only way to reduce the number of the feeble-minded is to prevent their birth. The perpetuation of defective family stocks should be inhibited. This would be possible to a great extent if every feeble-minded person and ever potential ‘carrier’ of the defective germ plasm could be prevented from parenthood.” 

The source? Not Nazi Germany or any of its ilk. No, those words originated from a report from the Massachusetts’ State Board of Insanity from 1912.

And just like that, the true reasons behind the republishing of the book by People Ink Press, People Inc. and the Museum of disABILITY History came clear. Yes, it’s a very interesting collection of photographs — especially to someone who’s fascinated with abandoned buildings — but at the heart of it, people worked and lived in these places. Including children.

That quote, you see, could be referring to my son, my family. It’s one thing to look at a photo of a child’s doll lying abandoned in a crumbling hallway, to see the art potential in a photograph of a line of arcane laboratory equipment or a cluster of syringes on the ground, to admire the image of a door — the words “Keep locked at all times” emblazoned upon it — surrounded by overgrown greenery.

It’s another thing to picture those you know and love in those environments. And it’s a little bit chilling.

The book features images of 12 former institutions from New England, all photographed by Gray, with historical content added by the museum in an attempt to preserve the historical record of what went on there. The introduction is written by Douglas Platt, curator of the museum and a resident of Newfane.

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