Wood County museum provides deep learning for students, public

For history major Paul Dority, who graduated in May, volunteering in the Wood County Historical Center and Museum has been an inspiration, despite the fact that some of what he’s dealt with is reflective of less happy times. Most recently, Dority helped prepare for events related to “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals,” a major photography exhibit, artist’s talk and panel discussion this week.

Two high-ceilinged rooms in the main building, the former paupers’ house, display large-format photographs by Christopher Payne of state mental institutions. The nationally recognized Payne will give a talk and sign books at the exhibit opening, from 6-8 p.m. tomorrow (May 30).

On Saturday, May 31, the former Lunatic Asylum next door will mark the 10th anniversary of its renovation with the debut of “Chasing the White Rabbit: A Historical Look at American Mental Illness,” a permanent exhibit of text and photos explaining the history of the treatment and living conditions of people with mental illness. Both exhibits were curated by Curator Holly Hartlerode.

Dority was charged with compiling the guest list for the Payne talk. “I wanted to gain more traction by pulling from a wider circle, so I invited everyone from our local historical societies to the University of Michigan psychiatry program,” he said.

“We hope to build awareness of what mental illness is and what mental health services are available,” said Museum Director Dana Nemeth. “Our real goal is that after viewing the exhibit, people will become advocates for their community.”

The “Asylum” exhibit has brought Dority, who minored in Russian, a closer understanding of America’s thinking about mental illness, which he compared to Germany’s in the 1930s.  “Cultures define mental illness differently,” he observed. “You have to dig into a society to figure out how people deal with things.”

Dority has continued as a volunteer even after graduating. Maureen Mason, a graduate student who works full time outside of BGSU, completed an internship with Hartlerode but also still comes to the museum to volunteer each week.

Hartlerode welcomes student volunteers and interns and strongly encourages anyone who thinks they might be interested in museum work to come to the Wood County museum.

“They can get the experience you don’t get in a classroom and learn a lot that’s not taught in school,” she said, speaking from experience. “I feel it’s my job to give that to upcoming students because they don’t know what they need to do to get into this kind of work. You need to have museum work on your resume. You have to have a passion for it, but it takes a while.”

The interns and student volunteers provide a “huge benefit,” she said, even at the most mundane of tasks such as inventorying, which is tedious but very important to museums. Dority inventoried the museum’s collection of antique cameras.

He has also had the opportunity to actually curate and set up exhibits, the military room and the Native American exhibit, following Hartlerode’s “public history” mantra of connecting events and artifacts from the past to the lives of people today, in an understandable way.

“It’s given me more initiative, and I’ve learned how to pick up different pieces of a puzzle and put them together so they form a narrative,” he said. “It’s using history to tell a story, not just as a collection of objects. I wanted to present the human element.”

In choosing the weapons and “trench art” created by soldiers, for the World War I room, he got to know the details of each piece and what they signified.

“There’s a value to being able to pick something up, to be able to look at it and feel it,” he said. “There’s value in every object.”

For all the details on the exhibits, talk and panel discussion, visit the Wood County Historical Center and Museum website.