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  • Writer's picturePhillip Ratliff

Backstory gets behind Kelton Design on a new museum

Updated: 6 days ago

In 2020, exhibit designer par excellence John Kelton of Kelton Design approached me to help him plan an exhibit. The topic: the original Bryce Hospital — its social history, its political history, its underlying treatment philosophies. To tackle the project, John and I rekindled a professional pattern we were well used to. Kelton Design had produced several exhibits that I curated as Director of Education at Vulcan Park and Museum. Later, when I struck out on my own under the Backstory banner, John brought me in as a freelancer as he was designing the Cook Museum of Natural Science. My job there was to focus group test copy and didactic strategies.

And I was later able to return the favor. I brought John and Kelton Design in to design Backstory’s project at Landmark Park in Dothan, Alabama. The folks at Landmark wanted to start with the script and then move into graphic and 3D design. Naturally, I am a fan of that idea.

For the Bryce Hospital project, I spent some three years, off and on, writing the script. The idea was to highlight a place, the original Bryce Hospital facility, as a center of healing, where compassion toward people with mental illness could be found, in a world where mental illness was misunderstood.

Getting the language right was important. Bryce Hospital operates under the banner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health. (Read an article from the Alabama Department of Mental Health here.) ADMH has long had a policy of patient-first language. Here’s how that works: You are a person with a mental illness, not a mentally ill person. It may seem a subtle distinction, but the difference is vast. You are a human being with a condition, not a condition attached to a person. The hospital's founders, Ellen and Peter Bryce, would be proud.

But not every moment in Bryce Hospital’s century-and-a-half history was a proud one.

When it began in 1861 as Alabama Insane Hospital, the institution’s founders envisioned it as a center of moral treatment philosophy, that is, a belief that mental illness could be treated through the establishment of regular patterns of work, worship, play, and social interaction. But as the treatment of mental illness became more medicalized, Bryce Hospital became a place where surgeries and pharmaceuticals took the place of Dr. Bryce’s philosophy.

From the early 1900s until reforms in the 1960s, led by Governor Lurleen B. Wallace, Bryce became a place where patients were not so much treated as sequestered. The landmark lawsuit Wyatt v. Stickney, which named Bryce superintendent Stonewall Stickney as defendant, established that mental health hospitals had to treat people with regimens that improved a diagnosed condition. Mental health hospitals emphatically could not be a place where inconvenient people were warehoused to make everyone else’s lives easier.

I wanted the story to capture this history in the Bryce Hospital script. I’m a firm believer in telling the whole story, even the parts that make us squirm. Anything less discredits the museum. In this age of partisanship and spin, museumgoers are hungry for the unvarnished truth.

I had collaborators pushing for the same thing. From Bryce historian Steve Davis, I learned that Bryce was an amazing place, but it was, for much of its history, racially segregated. The Backstory script owned all of this. You’ll see images of patients proudly working the land, but you'll also see an actual electroconvulsive machine. You’ll learn that even slaves received benevolent treatment, but you’ll also learn about the many ways Jim Crow was enforced.

Finding a balance between stories of failure and stories of triumph was always our goal. Backstory, Kelton Design, and the Alabama Department of Mental Health succeeded.

The exhibit begins with a discussion of the politics of starting a mental health hospital in antebellum Alabama. Convincing the state to fund such an endeavor was no mean feat. The exhibit moves on to discuss patient life and the architectural grandeur of the original Bryce Hospital structure.

Enjoy the photos, below, but you really have to visit in person to get the full effect. The Bryce Hospital Museum is free and open to the public Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5 pm.

Area 1 focuses on the politics of the opening of the Alabama Insane Hospital, later known as Bryce Hospital.

Area 2 focuses on life for patients inside Bryce Hospital.

Since its founding, work has been a vital part of the treatment philosophy at Bryce Hospital.

Area 3 focuses on the architecture of Bryce Hospital. The ideas of mental health reformer Thomas Storey Kirkbride figure prominently in this section of the exhibit.

Area 4 reminds visitors that for much of its existence, Bryce Hospital was a segregated facility. Patients of color were treated at Mount Vernon Hospital, now Searcy Hospital, near Mobile.

Read an article on the Bryce Hospital Museum grand opening here.

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