Visiting a state mental hospital would not usually be on anyone’s “must do” list, but the next time you’re in Salem you definitely want to spend an hour or two doing just that— especially if you’re a fan of the Academy Award-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The movie that starred Jack Nicholson as a defiant mental patient and Louise Fletcher as a domineering nurse, was filmed at the Oregon State Hospital. A portion of the striking brick institute has been turned into a Museum of Mental Health. In addition to props and revealing details about the film, you’ll also find historic photos, artifacts, and candid stories about the lives and medical treatments of actual patients who have lived at the hospital since it opened in 1883.
The exhibits in the Museum can be a bit startling— it’s not often you see authentic straitjackets, handcuffs, leather restraints, or an electroshock therapy machine. But read the stories posted throughout the Museum, and you’ll understand that not all medical treatments typical of the day were intentionally cruel or unusual. They were genuinely meant to help, and often did. Unlike today, patients 100 years ago were voluntarily hospitalized at the Oregon Insane Asylum, as it was formerly known, for conditions that had nothing to do with mental illness— epilepsy, alcoholism, syphilis. It’s also interesting to learn that the majority of patients in the early 20th century were women. Some were even children.
Many of the stories you’ll read in the Museum recount patient life. You’ll learn about incidents of suicide and murder, violent attack and accidental mass poisoning. On a positive note, the Oregon Insane Asylum was once quite self-sufficient through farming, weaving, producing a newspaper, and even had its own baseball team. In 1972, the Hospital was chronicled in LIFE magazine when 51 residents and 51 staff embarked on a 16-day wilderness therapy program that included camping, rock climbing, and river rafting. This program was designed to teach outdoor survival skills to chronic (long-term) patients and was pretty forward-thinking 40 years ago.
Based on Oregon native Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, the film version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was released in 1975. A portion of the 2,500 square-foot Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health provides intriguing “behind the scenes” information about on-site filming, the actors, and the roles played by the real-life hospital superintendent, staff, and inmates. One of the best movie props on display is the small TV that was featured in the film’s day room scenes. Wondering about that hydrotherapy console that Chief Bromden hurled through the hospital window? See it here.
IF YOU GO:
Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health
2600 Center Street NE
Salem, Oregon 97301
phone: (971) 599-1674
Open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays Noon – 4 p.m.
Adults $4; students and seniors $3