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Reflection: Caring for the Copper Canisters at the Oregon State Hospital Memorial

January 29, 2021

By Eleanor Sandys, Interim Visual Arts Coordinator and Registrar & Research Specialist, Oregon Arts Commission

Eleanor Sandys is the collections manager for the Percent for Art Collection, a program managed by the Oregon Arts Commission. Oregon’s Percent for Art legislation sets aside one percent of funds for the acquisition of public-facing artwork in all state building construction plans with budgets over $100,000. The program oversees over 2,400 of the state’s collection of art in public places, which includes the Oregon State Hospital Memorial. Eleanor’s job entails visiting artworks to check on their condition and advise state agencies on maintenance and preventive conservation.

Image courtesy of Oregon Arts Commission

As the door opens to the glassed-in portion of the Oregon State Hospital Memorial, my stomach flutters. The feeling is partially excitement about having special access (like going behind stanchions in an historical museum), and also a sense of awe and trepidation at being in close proximity to the copper canisters within, that once held the cremated remains of individuals who died 50 to 100 years ago.

Designed by artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio and installed in 2014, the Memorial honors over 3,400 individuals who passed away while in state institutions from 1913-1970. A peaceful space that inspires reflection, the Memorial raises these individuals’ experiences and brings attention to society’s neglect of those with mental illness. It also helps bring resolution to the story, as family members can claim the remains of their loved ones taking them home to a final resting place.

I am here to document the canisters’ condition, as a compliment to a study of the environmental conditions and functioning of the HVAC system in this historical building. Funded by an Oregon Cultural Trust Partner Grant and in partnership with the State Hospital, the Oregon Arts Commission is conducting maintenance on the Memorial. My condition report will include a description of the canisters’ condition, photographic documentation, and recommendations for preventive conservation.

The canisters have been through an incredible journey: first buried in a hospital cemetery then dug up when the land sold; installed in an underground vault that flooded; re-dug up and stacked on storage shelves for many years before becoming part of this Memorial. During the Memorial project, the cremains housed in the canisters – by then heavily corroded – were transferred to new ceramic urns.

Stepping through the door, I begin surveying the canisters. Metallic corrosion blooms from the canisters’ surfaces—stunningly rich green, turquoise and white crystals with radiating patterns. Exposure to groundwater while in the vault catalyzed the chemical reactions. The slow eruption of corrosion is now unstoppable and, in a sense, the active surface changes give the canisters a life of their own. Natural forces are reclaiming these objects, breaking them down to disintegrate once again into the earth. I find myself vacillating between scientific explanations of corrosion and reflections on human existence – our mortality and the passing of time. We are taught as museum professionals that our job is to maintain objects forever, and my job is to slow these canisters’ deterioration if possible. Yet the natural progression of time and cycle of life, unstoppable forces, are playing out here before my very eyes.

Bringing myself back to my conservation duties, I complete my documentation. Stepping back through the door I take a deep breath. It is has been an honor to spend time with these canisters – to witness their beauty and know their story. In caring for these physical objects, we bring value and recognition to the deceased and ongoing narratives about what their legacy means.

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