The newest exhibit at the Mead Cultural Education Center traces the history of South Dakota’s State Hospital, but is also the story of the museum itself.
“Yankton State Hospital: Minds, Methods and Medicine” will be a permanent exhibit at the Mead. It is open to Mead members exclusively for the first two weeks of June.
For now, a building occupancy limit of 30 people is in place as a safety precaution against spreading COVID-19. Those planning to visit the Mead are asked to call ahead to make sure there are guest slots available.
“Next, we’re going to open the exhibit to the South Dakota Human Services Center (HSC) staff and their families, because this is a really big part of who they are now and their history,” Crystal Nelson, the Mead’s executive director told the Press & Dakotan.
The exhibit will be open to the public on July 1, which, because of the novel coronavirus, will likely be a partial reopening.
Due to the presence of the virus in Yankton, the Children’s Museum may not reopen July 1. While the Children’s Museum is closed, children 10 years old and younger will not be charged an admission fee.
“We’re treading water lately, just like everybody else,” Nelson said. “We want to make sure that we’re not opening up too much too soon, and that we’re keeping our visitors safe.”
Patrons should practice social distancing while in the building. Masks are not required, but they are recommended.
The exhibit, which has been a year in the making, traces the history of the state hospital from its roots in what was the Dakota Territory to the present day.
The Mead building opened in 1909 as a mental health facility for women operated by Dr. Leonard C. Mead, who also oversaw its construction.
“When you restore a historic mental health facility, first thing people say is, ‘Tell me about the history of the campus and about the ancient state hospital,’” Nelson said. “So, this is an exhibit that is pretty dear to our exhibit design team.”
Because the Mead building stood empty for many years, a large part of the building’s restoration involved sorting through what remained and deciding how its history would be preserved.
“We had every biannual report since the 1880s,” Nelson said. “We had to read them all and pick through what people remembered, versus what the superintendents would report, versus what the submission books would record.”
The exhibit looks at several aspects of the campus, including the buildings, the people and even the hospital’s farm operations.
“One of the great things people don’t know is that we had a cow produce a world-record amount of milk,” Nelson said. “People really clamored after the meat that was processed here from the herd.”
The exhibit is divided into four rooms: building construction and history; hospital staff, who were all originally housed on the campus; therapies and treatments; and patient life outside of medical treatments.
“There’s a replicated patient room,” Nelson said. “Then exhibits involving their recreational therapy, occupational therapies, all the way through to their end of life — the Restview Cemetery — and why somebody would be buried there.”
Each room has an element of the transition from how it was, to how we know it today as a modern hospital campus, she said.
The exhibit does not shy away from examining the negative side of mental health history.
“This exhibit is also designed to help people understand the difference between legend and truth,” Nelson said. “What happened here; when it happened; why it happened — and to put into context historically — why those things happened.”
For example, the lobotomy, a once fairly common surgical procedure for mental health patients that involved cutting into the brain, is explained in its historical context.
“Lobotomies are one of those things that, when they came out, were really supposed to be the thing to cure mental illness,” Nelson said. “Then, medication followed them up quite closely behind and doctors realized, ‘Well, that didn’t really work the way we thought it would.’”
Lobotomies fell out of favor as a viable treatment.
The exhibit continues from the decline and demolition of the old campus, through to the construction of the new facility, the therapies used there today, and the methods that are no longer in use.
As comprehensive as the exhibit is, there is still much more to the history of the state hospital, she said.
“I could fill the entire Mead building with the stories about so much more,” Nelson said. “But, we really feel this has captured the essence of what the campus was and how it’s transitioned through time.”
For more information, call the Mead Cultural Education Center at 605-665-3898.
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