Indiana Medical History Museum Opens Window into Mental Health History

A fascinating museum lies in the nation’s heartland that provides much more than a glimpse into 19th century medicine of the mind. In a time when mental disease was very misunderstood by the layperson, Victorian-era physicians were beginning to experiment and study every facet of this mysterious frontier of medicine, morose as some of those experiments were.


The Indiana Medical History Museum in Indianapolis is dedicated to the memory of the patients and doctors of the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane and to the education of the public about the struggles and triumphs of those with mental illness and their caregivers and physicians.

Teaching amphitheater … Courtesy of the Indiana Medical History Museum and Tom Mueller Photography

Teaching amphitheater … Courtesy of the Indiana Medical History Museum and Tom Mueller Photography


I interviewed Sarah Halter, executive director of the Indiana Medical History Museum, to learn a little more about this very interesting museum.

How long has the museum been open?

The labs here closed in 1968, and the building reopened just about a year later in 1969 as a museum with the original furnishings, equipment, specimens, etc. still intact. 


What are a few of the exhibits?

We operate like a house museum, because the building is so authentic and intact. It is very much a time capsule. But we do have small exhibits and displays in certain parts of the building and offsite at libraries, etc. Some recent exhibits covered topics like the history of lobotomies, the closure of Central State Hospital in 1994 from the perspective of the patients there who wrote newsletters, rehumanization of our specimen collection (telling the human stories of the specimens), the art and institutionalization of the artist John Zwara who spent the spring and summer of 1938 here as a patient and painted beautiful watercolors of the grounds and buildings as they were then, etc.


What is the most popular item on exhibit in the museum?

The Anatomical Museum room gets a lot of attention, which is one of the reasons we are working to rehumanize those specimens which were preserved from patients who were autopsied here in the building during its time as a lab. Other popular objects include the photomicrographic camera in the photography studio, a pediatric iron lung for infants and toddlers, and the hand-cranked centrifuge in the Clinical Chemistry Lab.


Anatomical Room … Courtesy of the Indiana Medical History Museum and Tom Mueller Photography

Anatomical Room … Courtesy of the Indiana Medical History Museum and Tom Mueller Photography

What is your favorite item on exhibit in the museum?

I don't know if I can choose just one. I love our historic library collection and am thrilled with a current project we're partnering with the Indianapolis Public Library on to fully catalog the whole collection, make it searchable through their online catalog, and later to digitize about 200 of the 6,500 or so books in that collection that will be available online for anyone who wants to use them!


Can you tell me a little about the Old Pathology Building?

The building was the Pathological Department of Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, as it was called in 1896, when the building opened. The hospital itself opened in 1848 as the Indiana Hospital for the Insane and closed in 1994, then called Central State Hospital. The building was dedicated to research on physical causes of mental illnesses - tumors, lesions, inflammation, traumatic injuries, congenital defects, degenerative diseases, etc. to find cures and preventative measures so that patients' outcomes could improve and these diseases could be prevented in the future.


It was only the second pathology lab of its kind in the country and today is the oldest surviving freestanding path lab in the US. There is nothing else like it in this country. The building has three clinical labs - bacteriology, clinical chemistry, and histology, a library and auxiliary library, photography studio, operating theater, autopsy room, records room, and chemical storage room that are all preserved intact and on the public tour. We also have a demonstration garden of medicinal plants and an adjacent building that houses a 1950s doctor's office. This recreated office was located in Lewisville, IN, a rural area, and the doctor's practice was in the basement of his home there. We offer guided tours of the building and garden, programs like lectures, panel discussions, theatrical productions, hands-on science programs, movie screenings, etc., and soon we're starting guided tours of the former grounds of the hospital in which we're located.


Courtesy of the Indiana Medical History Museum and Tom Mueller Photography

Courtesy of the Indiana Medical History Museum and Tom Mueller Photography

What does your job entail?

I wear many hats, of course, but I run the organization day to day, which includes everything from fundraising, budgeting, strategic planning, community outreach, managing staff and volunteers, handling PR/media relations and HR, working with our Board of Directors on things that fall into their area of governance, coordinating preservation efforts and managing construction projects, working with developers and the City of Indianapolis as well as other property holders here on the former grounds of Central State Hospital as the area is developed to ensure that the site's history is preserved, creating partnerships and collaborations with other cultural, history, education, and community organizations for various programs and projects ... the list goes on.


How did you get into this business?

I started working here as a graduate intern 12 years ago and fell in love with the building and the subject matter. I was a graduate student in the Museum Studies program at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis ) here in Indianapolis with a background in history, anthropology, and archaeology. I was hired as staff when my internship ended, became the Director of Public Programs here two years later, and then in May of 2014 was chosen as the new Executive Director when my predecessor retired.

The museum is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. Tours cost $10 for adults, $5 for university students, and $3 for children under 18.

3045 West Vermont Street, Indianapolis, IN  46222