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Library Of Dust

© David Maisel

Library of Dust depicts individual copper canisters, each containing the cremated remains of a patient from a state-run psychiatric hospital. The patients died there between the 1880’s and the 1970’s; their bodies have remained unclaimed in the intervening years by their families and descendants. The hospital first revealed their possession of these 3500 canisters several years ago; before that, the existence of these canisters was largely unknown. The hospital is located in Salem, Oregon, and is perhaps best known in popular culture as the setting for the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When originally constructed in the 1880’s, the hospital was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum.

The copper canisters have a handmade quality; they are at turns burnished or dull; corrosion blooms wildly from the leaden seams and across the surfaces of many of the cans. Numbers are stamped into each lid; the lowest number is 01, and the highest is 5,121. The vestiges of paper labels with the names of the dead, the etching of the copper, and the intensely hued colors of the blooming minerals combine to individuate the canisters. It has been posited that the mineral accretions are caused by the metallic containers reactions with their human ash contents; each canister is thus a mineralogical portrait of the person within.

The president of the Oregon State Senate presented photographs from Library of Dust in his successful efforts to secure funding to rebuild and modernize the aging psychiatric facility. Hopefully, part of that rebuilding effort will include a memorial structure to house these canisters, to honor the lives of those who are the subject of this work.

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click here to learn about the monograph 'Library Of Dust'

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