This trunk belongs to a man we will call James. In the early 1950s, when James was 7 years old, he was sent to an institution in Orillia where he lived for many years.
This was the trunk that accompanied him. It was filled with clothing and personal items specified in a list provided by the institution.
Between 1876 and 1950, almost 10,000 lives were crammed into trunks as this number of people with intellectual disabilities were admitted to the Orillia Asylum for Idiots, as it was then called. A few years after James’ admission, journalist Pierre Berton visited the site. “Prisoners in reformatories have better facilities”, he wrote, describing the stench and squalor he encountered.
Today we have a good idea about the objects once packed into trunks like this. But we can only imagine the feelings and memories that tumble out of these now-‘empty’ trunks for James and his fellow survivors.
An educational assistant with the Toronto Board of Education, Sarah May happened on a trunk that was used to send a child away, a child only slightly older than her own son. Overwhelmed and curious about the secrets and shame that lay within, she began her own journey to investigate another chapter of disability’s hidden history.
I am a Disability Studies student at Ryerson University. I have my Developmental Service Worker diploma and work for the Toronto Board of Education as an educational assistant—working with medically fragile, developmentally disabled children. I am 27 years old and a mother of a three year old son. Just around the time that I was trying to uncover an object for my course, I received an email asking me to sign a petition to stop the closing of a local institution. Curious why anyone would want to keep an institution open, I started talking to people, including former residents and employees of the site.
Through my various contacts, I received an old trunk that had been used to pack the belongings of a former resident of the Orillia Asylum for Idiots. The trunk evoked so many feelings in me. I began to imagine how many lives had been packed away into that trunk: of hidden children, family secrets, and disability shame. I never thought that I would be so full of emotion over an empty chest. To me, this chest represents abandonment and the journey that those deemed not good enough for normal society were often forced to take. People that were packed away and had their lids closed down on them. I want my exhibit to lift the lid on this rarely talked about journey of the trunk.
Sarah May Glyn-Williams
View a short interview with Sarah May Glyn-Williams, creator of Packing.