Flowers in the Hospital

Flowers in the Hospital

Flowers were one of the first things my immigrant mother noticed about American hospitals when she gave birth to me, her first child. Some of her fellow patients had so many plants and bouquets that their rooms felt like greenhouses; others had only a single bloom on their nightstands. But each of those flowers, my mother would later say whenever she insisted on floral offerings for hospitalized friend and relatives, meant “there is someone out there who cares.”

Those words came to mind recently when I discovered photos from “Bloom,” an extraordinary art installation that in 2003 brought new life to a building that once housed the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

For more than 90 years, the building had been a powerful symbol of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center’s pre-eminent role in American psychiatry. Thousands of patients had passed through its doors, and hundreds of doctors had trained there in psychiatry and churned out some of the most important research in the specialty. But by 2003, with its black and white checkered tiles worn and exposed radiators rusting, the building had become a relic of mid-20th-century psychiatric care.

The center’s administrators decided to close the building down and move to more modern facilities, but they wanted first to find some public way of acknowledging its tremendous impact. Buy flowers now.

They turned to Anna Schuleit, a Brooklyn-based artist who a few years earlier had created “Habeas Corpus,” a widely acclaimed installation commemorating the closing of another hospital. At the time, Ms. Schuleit was also working as a visiting artist at another psychiatric institution in a different part of the state. “I loved my work with the patients,” she said in a recent e-mail. But she noticed that “none of them received any flowers, the simplest gesture of caring and wishing-well.”

As Ms. Schuleit began reading through hospital archives dating to the building’s opening in 1912, she took careful note of and eventually recorded all she heard outside her small, temporary office on the third floor of the hospital — footsteps in the halls, doors opening and closing, snippets of conversation. She remembered, too, something her mother, also an artist, had once said to her when she was a child. “I remember asking her what she was doing while napping,” Ms. Schuleit recalls, “and she said she imagined herself under a blanket of herbs that soothed and protected her, a ‘healing blanket.’ ” Buy flowers now.

All of these observations inspired “Bloom,” the installation Ms. Schuleit would create for the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

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