A community archivists’ research project on the lives of Pennhurst residents

Jefferson’s Helix Gallery presents File/Life—We Remember Stories of Pennhurst

3 minute read
Six large b&w portrait photos of adults, one child, on tapestries at an exhibit wall with touch pads and headphones in front
The installation archives the troubling stories of the former residents of Pennhurst School. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University.)

The current installation at Jefferson University’s Helix Gallery, File/Life—We Remember Stories of Pennhurst running now through April 13, 2024, asks such questions as, “Can a file ever contain a life?” In 2022, Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities initiated an extensive project, drawing from files of residents at the Pennhurst School, which addresses that question (and many others). Now, visitors can find the answers.

The art of remembering

Lisa Sonneborn, director of media arts and culture at the institute, gathered a group of community archivists representative of the disabilities community to review 20 years' worth of files held in State archives. All eight of the community archivists are individuals with disabilities and/or family members of individuals with disabilities. Four collaborating artists helped build an interactive installation with digital content that could share some of the stories, images, and documents the archivists explored. Two of the archivists are also former residents who chose to share their own stories of life at Pennhurst.

The Pennhurst State School and Hospital was a state institution for Pennsylvanians with intellectual and physical disabilities that opened as the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic in 1908 in Spring City, Pennsylvania. More than 10,000 people resided in Pennhurst from 1908 until 1987, when it was forced to close by court order after extensively documented abuses in the institution. Historians, legal and social science scholars, and journalists have recorded the history of Pennhurst. This project is the first to document the lives of early residents from the perspective of people living today with disabilities.

Helix Gallery hosts the third installation of the project. The first was held over one weekend in April 2023 at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House. The second traveled to Washington, DC, in July 2023 and was open to the public for three days in the Russell Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. The version at the Helix Gallery will be open for almost three months, allowing more visitors to experience the content on a deeper level. The installation, Sonneborn says, is meant to provoke conversation, to ask questions, including, “What does it mean to live a good life?”

The team worked with non-restricted patient files from the Pennsylvania state archives in Harrisburg, from residents who were discharged from Pennhurst before March 1947 or died before March 1972. They reviewed documents such as intake and discharge records, photographs, and letters, excluding the last names and identifying information in consideration of any family members who may still be living.

One of the letters from a Pennhurst mother, March 27, 1941, reads:

I have a nice little tan coat here now and some other little articles that as soon as I can send them to the cleaners I will mail them to my little girl Janice. … It is so hard for me to ride it nearly kills me to have her so far away … And she will be so scared among strangers I can see her looking and wondering why we done it. I had to choose, either bring her home and the neighbor children among with my own make life miserable for her as my children do not understand why she acts toward them as she does. God knows I did so want to keep her.

The experience of viewing some of these records, listening to interviews with the community archivists, and experiencing the installation with assistive technology can be a staggering and difficult one. The institute plans a series of community conversations so that visitors can meet team members and ask questions that may come up after reviewing the material. More information is available on the project website.

What, When, Where

File/Life—We Remember Stories of Pennhurst. Through April 13, 2024, at the Helix Gallery at Thomas Jefferson University Center City Campus, 1001 Locust Street, Philadelphia. Free. (215) 204-1356 or temple.edu.


The Helix Gallery is located at ground level with a wheelchair-accessible entrance through the Dorrance H. Hamilton building off Locust Street. All video content is open-captioned, ASL-interpreted, and audio-described. Informational displays include QR codes that link to digital content, which is available in braille. Fidgets and disposable headphone covers are available. A comprehensive “Know Before You Go” publication is available through the project’s website.

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