When Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995, staff members Beverly Courtwright and Lisa Hoffman, along with Craig Williams, a New York State Museum curator, worked to save historical artifacts there. Beverly found a door tucked under the pigeon-infested rafters of an attic. Prying it open, they found rows of wooden racks, packed with almost 400 suitcases of all shapes and types - men's on the left, women's on the right, alphabetized, labeled, and covered by bird droppings, seemingly untouched for years. Realizing they had stumbled across unique and valuable artifacts, Craig had the suitcases moved to the Museum's warehouse near Albany.
This is where Darby Penney and Peter Stastny encountered the luggage in 1999, wrapped in dusty plastic sheets. Working with a list of names and hospital identification numbers, they went through the suitcases to choose a smaller number of individuals and identify their belongings for closer study. Peter, Darby, and photographer Lisa Rinzler spent several years immersed in the material and documentary remnants of these people's lives, forming relationships with them through the things they left behind. They went to their homes, visited their graves, read their correspondence and medical records, studied their snapshots, talked to their neighbors and caretakers, and Lisa took photographs of what they saw. They also examined hundreds of Willard photographs and documents at the New York State Archives
The result was a major New York State Museum
exhibition in 2004, "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic," seen by more than 600,000 visitors during its nine-month run. The exhibit evoked an unprecedented level of response: many visitors returned repeatedly, seeking out the curators for discussion. Strangers started conversations in the galleries; many visitors cried openly. A playwright wrote a play about the suitcase owners; a minister wrote a sermon based on her reactions to the exhibit. The suitcase owners, people who were abandoned by society and put away for decades, were finally memorialized in a respectful way that celebrated the richness of their lives.