In the spring of 2009, I was a young archival assistant at the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection. In the midst of my final semester at North Dakota State University, I was avoiding my thesis and working part-time in a small special collection on campus.

Aw, to be young again…

Anyways… at the start of the semester I was given a MASSIVE archival project – The Baumgartner Family Collection. Thousands of photographs, hundreds of documents, dozens of artifacts, all lovingly stored in shoe boxes, folded into books, and displayed in magnetic photo albums. (I can’t find words to describe the mental anguish I experience peeling/attempting to peel photographs from the pages of these magnetic photo albums – DO NOT USE MAGNETIC PHOTO ALBUMS, please.)

The collection mainly focused on Philippine (Baumgartner) Berglund. Over twenty binders of photographs traced Philippine through her high school years, college education, her career as a teacher, and her marriage to Gus Berglund. In the collection, one can see the record of nearly every course she studied in high school, a sample of her wedding lace, and the nameplate that sat on her husband’s desk. The entire collection is comprised of personal belongings and candid family portraits, giving the viewer an intimate glimpse at Philippine (Baumgartner) Berglund’s family.

A photograph from the Baumgartner Collection, Philippine Baumgartner (right). Photo credit Annie Erling, GRHC

It was so intimate. Over the course of 5 months I felt like I knew Philippine, I recognized her family, saw them age through the years, mourned silently as I came across memorial prayer cards from their funerals. Independently managing this collection was such an incredible experience, and gave me an unique glimpse into a life.

I recently saw a story on NPR about a photographer documenting old suitcases left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, N.Y. In 1995, after 100 years of operation, Willard closed its doors. Craig Williams, a curator at the New York State Museum, decided to check out Willard  and found nearly 400 suitcases from patients who were admitted to Willard between 1910 and 1960s. “And since the facility was set up to help people with chronic mental illness, these folks never left,” Crispin explains.

A case that belonged to Freda B. - a patient at Willard. Photo Credit Jon Crispin,

In 2004, the New York State Museum put the cases on display in an exhibition, “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.” The show features the suitcases and possessions of 12 former Willard patients. Since the show’s closing, the suitcases were carefully preserved and stored at the New York State Museum, where Jon Crispin has begun photographing them.

Each suitcase once belonged to a Willard patient – left behind after their death or when they were moved to a different facility. Each photograph seems so personal, like reading someone’s diary. The contents of each suitcase can explain the patients’ interests, hobbies, profession, where they came from.

Maude K.'s case, filled with crafting supplies. Photo credit Jon Crispin,

One story told in the “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives” exhibit was that of Madeline C. Madeline was French and admitted once that she could read minds. This bought her entrance to Willard. For more than 3 decades she attempted to win her freedom from Willard, but hospital staff kept her because of  her “continual fidgety movements, rigid stances, and facial grimaces.” They had no idea that these physical ticks were side effects of the medication she was forced to take.

Madeline’s suitcase included a pink silk dress, a pair of long white gloves, a stack of sheet music, a copy of Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, and a bulletin listing philosophy and psychology courses at Columbia University.

Check HERE for 3 more personal stories behind the suitcases left at Willard (including one story of a Holocaust Survivor). Click HERE to see more of Jon Crispin’s suitcase photographs. And, lastly, click HERE to donate money to this project – Crispin needs funding to continue photographing the Willard suitcases.

– Ann Erling Gofus