Elizabeth Nelson is the Director of Public Programs at the Indiana Medical History Museum, formerly the Pathological Department of Indiana’s Central State psychiatric hospital on Indy’s Near West Side. Her passion is making history relevant to current conversations about mental health in our community. At Indiana University, Bloomington, her doctoral dissertation focused on psychiatric innovation in France before World War I. Currently, Elizabeth is learning all she can about deinstitutionalization and the community care (and neglect) of the mentally ill in the US since the 1960s. At the Indiana Medical History Museum, Elizabeth is leading a project called “Voices from Central State,” a series of Fall 2016 programs that spotlight the writings of psychiatric patients in Indiana from the 1880s-1990s.
How long have you lived in Indy?
I was born and raised in Indianapolis, though I stayed for a long while in Bloomington as a student and for a short while in France. Two years ago, I moved with my family into my late grandparents’ big, old house in Emerson Heights. We are enjoying being close to relatives, raising chickens and a garden, and living close to downtown, Irvington and Fountain Square.
Why have you focused your career on the nonprofit sector?
I love affective learning experiences that include feelings of intrigue, shock, fascination, immersion, insight and understanding. Museums are wonderful in that they invite visitors to marvel, and their collections and displays literally embody the connections between the past and the present. The Indiana Medical History Museum has so many artifacts that make visitors say “wow!” — from brains in jars to our beautifully preserved autopsy amphitheater. Those “wow moments” provide a springboard for education about a range of topics: the evolution of health care in Indianapolis, how disease manifests in the body, the ethics of medical research, the experience of mental illness. I am inspired by the endless possibilities for engagement and interpretation that museums afford, and the roles they can play as a community resource.
How did you find your current position?
More and more people are learning about the Indiana Medical History Museum, but when I ran across the museum’s website several years back, it was still a “hidden gem.” At that time I was beginning work on my dissertation, about a Parisian mental asylum in the 1890s. My first visit to the museum’s 1896 Old Pathology Building was what the French call a “coup de foudre,” or love at first sight. I had to find a way to spend more time among the organ specimens, the German-Victorian architecture, the antique laboratory equipment. I began by volunteering as a docent, and my wheels began turning as I realized the topics I was interested in academically had broad resonance in the community. When the Director of Public Programs position opened up, I jumped at the chance to play a creative role in interpreting the past through organizing events and exhibits. There was definitely a learning curve moving from academia to the museum/nonprofit world, but I have enjoyed it, feeling increasingly empowered as I pick up new skills.
What would you say to another young professional considering a nonprofit job?
Get out into the world and observe what is going on in your community. Meet people and build relationships. Get in involved in the realm of work you are considering, as a volunteer or intern. Figure out how to align your interests and abilities with the needs and dreams of the people you hope to serve, and with the missions of your potential partners and collaborators.
If you could learn a brand new skill, what would it be?
How to be a great performer. I love to sing, but self-consciousness often gets in the way. Many great teachers are also charismatic performers. I admit I do fantasize about being able to cast a spell over a room.
If you were an inanimate object, what would you be and why?
I have a thing for timeless mechanical devices, the creepiness of the uncanny valley, and sensuous works of art; I’ve recently fallen for Philippe Curtius’ “Sleeping Beauty,” a 1920s waxwork that gently breathes — stretching the definition of inanimate. Based on an 18th-century model, Madame du Barry, a courtesan-turned-royal mistress and victim of the guillotine, the waxwork resides at Madame Tussaud’s in London, and I think it would be fabulous to be her… I mean “it.”
What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t yet?
The Indiana Medical History Museum is on the former grounds of Central State Hospital, which closed in 1994. Its closure is both a local affair, and part of a broader story about how the care of the mentally ill has shifted from big institutions to the community. I am feeling my way forward, asking how a museum can provide a public platform for thinking about the legacies of the asylum system. In my programming plans for the upcoming year, I am exploring how to interpret abandoned hospitals in ways that go beyond “ruin porn” and ghost tours, how to include marginalized voices in conversations about mental health care, how to discuss difficult topics — like the abuse of patients in mental hospitals, how mental illness affects families, the overwhelming numbers of people with mental illness in prisons and jails — without obscuring the work of devoted caregivers and advocates. This summer, the museum is launching a historic walking tour of the former hospital grounds. We are also excited about the “Voices from Central State” series scheduled for fall, which features patient memoirs and newsletters, and bridges public history and the arts.
Share a little-known treasure of Indianapolis with us.
The Saraga International Grocery — exotic fruits and vegetables, an amazing selection of fresh seafood, and a meat section that includes all parts of the animal (where else can you purchase a pig’s uterus?). Aisles and aisles of global ingredients — noodles, spices, teas, cheeses — that challenge me to learn more about international cuisine.
Most important question: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Want to support Elizabeth's work?
"Voices from Central State" spotlights the patient perspective on life at Indiana's flagship mental hospital (1848-1994). Bringing together public history and the arts, this series aims to amplify marginalized voices and stimulate a discussion about mental health care in Indiana. All programs will take place at the Indiana Medical History Museum.
August 26-27, 2016
From Under the Cloud
A One-Woman Theatrical Performance based on Anna Agnew's 1886 memoir detailing her seven-year stay at Central State.
September 26-27, 2016
I Remember Jones
A Conversation with Nanny Vonnegut about her grandmother, life at Central State in the 1940s, and the power of narrative.
November 10, 2016
An Exhibit Opening on the 1994 closure of Central State, based on patient-produced newsletters
Visit the Indiana Medical History Museum's Website for more details.
"Voices from Central State" is the product of a partnership between the Indiana Medical History Museum and the Medical Humanities & Health Studies Program at IUPUI. Funding support provided by the IU New Frontiers Program, Indiana Humanities, and the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute.