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TALA, WVU working together on interpretation initiative

November 17, 2010
The Inter-Mountain

The West Virginia University History Department and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston are working together on a recent project called The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Oral History and Interpretation Initiative.

Graduate students Ashley Whitehead and Jay Smith from the history department at WVU will be working with the director of public history at WVU, Dr. Melissa Bingmann, and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum to record oral histories of former workers at Weston State Hospital, residents of Weston, who lived in the town while the hospital was still active, and former patients treated at the hospital who might be willing to share their stories about the hospital.

The project members recognize the significance of the hospital not only as a historic and architectural structure, but also as a key tool for analyzing change over time in American perceptions and treatments of mental illness, as well as in the evolution of the administration and operation of state hospitals.

The oral histories seek to preserve stories about the daily experiences, working conditions and lifestyles of former workers and patients at the hospital, as well as stories about the town's residents' interactions with or perceptions of the hospital. These oral histories are being recorded with the ultimate goal of having them transcribed and preserved for future research at the State Archives in Charleston, and potentially including them in an "acousti-guide" tour of the asylum for visitors to the site.

WVU also plans to hire an assisting visiting scholar to tour TALA, provide suggestions on the creation of potential future exhibits at the asylum by future public history students at WVU and deliver a lecture to the town of Weston on the significance of the site and the public history opportunities at the asylum.

Weston residents and any former hospital workers, who are willing, will have the opportunity to contribute to the content development of these exhibits by providing feedback, by way of a community forum, about potential interpretive themes and/or personal anecdotes about the asylum during its operation that they feel would enhance the interpretive experience at TALA.

Simultaneously, the team hopes that their project will help to stimulate visitation to the asylum and will help to rejuvenate the economy of the surrounding community through heritage tourism.

Additionally, the project hopefully will help to re-instill within the community a sense of pride for its traditionally close ties with and support of this important institution and historically significant landmark. By rejuvenating community pride in the asylum, the team hopes to help foster greater collective stewardship of this currently privately owned and operated historic site for the purpose of preservation, education and interpretation. By stimulating heritage tourism to TALA and community interest in the stewardship of TALA, the project can help to increase TALA's year-round, education-based source of income for necessary preservation projects at the asylum.

Through such simultaneous enhancement of interpretation and preservation, TALA might serve as a future model for other similar institutions that are looking to improve their own interpretive and preservation efforts.

The project team is still looking for additional potential interviewees for the oral histories and would like to encourage any willing former Weston State Hospital workers or patients, as well as long-term residents of Weston with any stories pertaining to the hospital, to contact the project team for more information about the interview process. Call Ashley Whitehead at 339-234-0265 or e-mail for more information.



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