Students bringing stories of Bull Street Asylum out from behind its walls

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - From a working farm to a bakery, people are often surprised to find out what was behind the walls at the Bull Street Asylum.

Thanks to students at the University of South Carolina, the results of their research are on display at the McKissick Museum's Bull Street: A Forgotten Past and Uncertain Future.

"The students were looking for items that personalized the story of mental health," said USC Art History Professor Dr. Lydia Brandt. "I think one of the most difficult things, when you're talking about the history of Bull Street and sites like it, especially in the 20th century, is it's hard to imagine people there."

From photos of life inside the walls, to a fire bucket, a paddle for baking bread, even a model replica of the asylum's landmark Babcock Building, the items are intended to tell the story of life at Bull Street.

"The students really wanted to fill out the story," said Dr. Brandt. "It's very easy to look at Bull Street and places like it as horrible places, and they were, for a lot of people.  But they were also places that were intended to do good and that were progressive at their moment."

The Bull Street asylum was self-sufficient, including a farm that raised hogs, dairy cattle and wheat to make bread.

"The farm was actually one of the things we did not anticipate finding once we began doing research," said Brandt. "The students began focusing on the buildings that were extant. And then they started to discover there were a lot of other buildings on the 181-acre site over the good course of its lifetime."

"What's so fascinating about the story is the self-sufficient nature of this village and how it existed behind these walls for decades and decades, and many people didn't get to see it and understand how complex of a place it was," she said.

Like the title of the exhibit, the site's future is uncertain now that it will be developed by Bob Hughes of Greenville, who is purchasing the property.

"The controversy surrounding the redevelopment about Bull Street has made the students a lot more excited than I think they would have been if they were researching another kind of site because their research seems absolutely relevant and is absolutely relevant, so that gave them, I think, a big boost," said Brandt.

Students looked through the archives of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health for photos and documents, but they did not have access to patient records.

"There's been very little research published by traditional scholars like myself on its history," said Brandt. "So the students have this tremendous opportunity to be scholars to put themselves in a historian's shoes and to find things out about places that people really don't understand at all."

Although some of the photos show the grounds as an Eden-like oasis in the middle of the city, the site is not without its dark past.  The exhibit includes a full-body restraining suit and an electroshock device.

"The students were looking to fill out that story," Brandt said. "To balance the really difficult things, the complicated, and in some cases, horrible things and the daily and kind of pragmatic things."

Brandt hopes that the development plan includes saving as many of the buildings as possible, from the magnificent landmark Babcock building, to the menial laundry and bakery.

"If we only preserve the really big, impressive building, we're at a risk of losing the whole story and understanding what life at this place was really like."

Bull Street: A Forgotten Past and Uncertain Future will be at the McKissick Museum at USC through May 31st.

Students are developing a web site to preserve the asylum's treasures digitally.

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