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Series of performances offers insight into life in Indiana's flagship psychiatric hospital

August 23, 2016

A series of programs will shine a spotlight on patients' lives at Central State Hospital in Indianapolis, which was Indiana's flagship psychiatric institution for nearly 150 years.

Presented by the Indiana Medical History Museum and the Medical Humanities and Health Studies program in the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, with assistance from Discover Near West Indys, "Voices from Central State" programs begin Aug. 26 and 27 with a theatrical performance.

The one-woman show, titled "Then There Is No Need to Speak," is adapted from a patient's memoir published in 1886 about her seven-year hospitalization.

The patient, Anna Agnew, will be played by Denise Jaeckel. The production is being directed by IUPUI English professor Terri Bourus, founder of Hoosier Bard Productions. The script was adapted from Agnew's 1886 memoir by Thomas Hummel. The 60-minute performance will be followed by a brief historical presentation by Kathleen Briana, a historian from Western Washington University.

The show's performances will take place at 7 p.m. at the Indiana Medical History Museum, 3045 W. Vermont St.

"The idea is to get a better understanding of what the experience of living at Central State Hospital was like, right up to the hospital closing in 1994," said Emily Beckman, an assistant clinical professor and director of the medical humanities program. The hospital opened in 1848.

"Voices from Central State" draws support from local and national scholars in medical humanities, history, public history, English and museum studies, Beckman said. It will result in new academic research in addition to the series of public programs.

"It is our hope that these programs will provide medical students and professionals, as well as the general public, with new insights into the experience of mental illness, the role of narrative in healing, and the history and current state of mental health care in our community," Beckman said.

The second program, "I Remember Jones," will take place at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 and 27 at the museum. Nanette Vonnegut, daughter of acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut, will read a short story by her maternal grandmother, Riah Cox, about her hospitalization in the 1940s.

Along with Jane Schultz, an IUPUI professor of English, Vonnegut will discuss a number of themes related to Cox's story, including how mental illness affects families, the historical role of the nurse and the power of the arts to promote recovery.

The third program, titled "Leaving Home," is an exhibit featuring newsletters produced by patients in the years leading up to the hospital's closure in 1994. The exhibit opens Nov. 10 at the museum. That evening's program begins with a 6 p.m. panel discussion about how the closing of the state hospital affected patients as well as Central Indiana residents who developed mental illness after the closing. Attendees may browse the exhibit beginning at 7 p.m.

"Voices from Central State" is supported by the IU New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities program, IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

All three programs require advance registration. Please visit the museum's website for more information. "Then There is No Need to Speak" is $5 for the public and free for students. "I Remember Jones" and the "Leaving Home" exhibit opening are free. "Leaving Home" will be on display at the Indiana Medical History Museum through March 2017.

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