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Release: Dec. 22, 2000

UI Medical Museum 'Diagnostik' exhibit reflects early psychiatric treatment

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A new exhibit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Medical Museum captures the essence of early psychiatric treatment and research in a way that begs for a second look.

The exhibit, titled "Diagnostik," examines psychiatric care in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visual artist Marguerite Perret and exhibition designer Bruce Scherting, exhibit developer for the UI Natural History Museum, used a combination of museum artifacts, photographs and textual materials to create the intriguing display.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, little was known about mental illness. However, the Iowa State Psychopathic Hospital, founded in 1920 in a section of the original UI Hospital, turned its focus away from the custodial asylum and toward research, treatment and prevention of mental illness.

Mental health professionals at the hospital were progressive in treating mental illness. For one, they did not label their patients as "insane," but rather "affected with abnormal mental conditions." This allowed the mentally ill to receive treatment without losing their civil rights.

"I hoped that through the use of primary materials, such as the 1920s admissions logbooks from the Iowa State Psychopathic Hospital, literary sources and archived photographs, the viewer would identify with the patients and empathize with their experiences," Perret said. "I hoped to show that they are just like our friends and family…they are us."

The exhibit includes museum artifacts such as an early straight jacket and electro-shock therapy device, as well as original artwork by Perret based on the Rorschach inkblot test -- a tool used to measure patients' feelings and interpretations by having them respond to ambiguous images. In one series of digital images, patients and health care staff from the Iowa State Psychopathic Hospital are revealed or obscured by inkblots.

"The Rorschach inkblot test was published in 1921, the same year the Iowa Psychopathic Hospital moved into a new facility on the west side of the Iowa River," Perret said. "I drew these two seemingly unrelated events together to emphasize the focus on scientific applications in treating mental illness."

The display also includes a continuously playing slide show containing personal accounts of mental illness, historical quotes, photographs of mental health facilities in Iowa and listings from admissions logbooks from the Iowa State Psychopathic Hospital. Some of the artwork also uses light boxes; other pieces make use of the mandala (Sanskrit for circle), which Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung used in drawing therapy for patients.

"Any opportunity where the museum can focus on mental health is so important," said Adrienne Drapkin, director of the Medical Museum. "And this exhibition presents such a unique perspective — images that are aesthetically lovely juxtaposed with the prejudices and ignorance of the past. The slide show is especially poignant."

Perret holds a master's of fine arts degree from Southern Illinois University. She has exhibited nationally, works part-time at the UI Libraries and is a freelance art critic. She is interested in how people with mental illness are treated by the medical community and by society.