Digital History Proposal: St. Elizabeth’s Asylum Site

For my digital history project, what I really want to create is a site through WordPress that functions both as an educational site and an online collection. My research over the past year has involved case files of female patients at St. Elizabeth’s Asylum in DC from the nineteenth century. What I hope this site will ultimately do is trace the experiences of these female patients, but also interact with other sites that give a limited history and analysis of St. Elizabeth’s.

In regards to the structure of the site, I would like to set it up as if the site visitor is a newly admitted patient, making each subsequent page the next “step” in the lives of these patients. The steps I have outlined will be admissions, diagnosis, moral treatment, daily life and resistance, mental health evaluations, and death (not to be somber). The site will also have a page for analyzing the differences between nineteenth century medical rhetoric and the actual practice of medicine in the public asylum, as well as the role race, religion, gender, and class play. Creating such a site would also allow both the patients’ voices from the files to be heard, as well as the voices of doctors and medical authorities. The collections aspect would come in to play with uploading various parts of the medical records, such as mental health tests or patient intake forms.

In order to make it more “fun” if you want to call it that, I will also include a “blog” by various patients and doctors, using the medical files to reconstruct what they “might” have said. Though I’m not entirely a fan of this sort of conjecturing in academic history, I feel for this site the “what would they have said” aspect could bring another dimension to story. Also, I will use their words through quoting or paraphrasing where I can.

WordPress sites do not have the built in community that other online venues offer, such as Flickr, but to enhance the publicity and connection of the site to a wider public, I will integrate a Twitter feed featuring one of the patients as the Twitter “user”. The site would be interacted with both through WordPress and through Twitter, as the Twitter feed would also connect to other Twitter users. Some example are Twitter feeds that recount Civil War diaries or institutions that are involved with digitizing history online, including the NYPL’s “What’s on the Menu?” feed. I personally follow the Univ. of Iowa’s Transcription Twitter and others and find that to be a great way to connect and stay up to date with changes. (They also tend to follow you back…. which is where I’m going with this.)

There are a number of other sites, including those of the NIH, Asylum Projects, and Historic Asylums of America that discuss St. Elizabeth’s. However, their sites tend to emphasize more the physical construction of the asylum and, if any inclusion of patients, focus on its use as a military asylum during the Civil War. While these are both important components that will be included in my site, what I hope to do is push my blog further in making it analytical. Female patients are widely negated from any discussion of St. Elizabeth’s, and the patient voice is often lost as well. I hope for my digital project to reconstruct the daily experience of the women, as well as include documents from that period that discuss female patients in a more public venue. For example, I plan to include both the origins of the asylum through bills put forth to Congress as well as newspaper articles from the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun that detailed the committal of women.

This digital project will give many layers to this one topic, from patients voices to media portrayals to autopsy procedures. It will be both “interactive” in the sense the patients will be blogging, but also will be extremely informative on the history and use of St. Elizabeth’s.

One Reply to “Digital History Proposal: St. Elizabeth’s Asylum Site”

  1. I love this project idea. The idea of having a site visitor move through the process of being admitted is a creative idea that I think has a ton of potential. As I mentioned in class, I think the blog might be too much to scope into this project. I would rather see you focus your energy on this novel exhibit idea then split your efforts between blogging and the site. So I would hone in on getting a site structure, theme, and images that communicate your story and then focus on how to incorporate primary source material into the site.

    As far as outreach and getting attention is concerned. I think the idea of this site is so compelling that you have a good shot at getting it covered/discussed on a range of history blogs. For example, here is a long list of history blogs

    Keep up the great work!

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