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NLM Lends Historical Images & Related Items to National Building Museum Exhibition

February 15, 2017

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is pleased to have selected items from its collection included in a new exhibition, Architecture of an Asylum: St Elizabeths 1852-2017, which will open on March 27, 2017 and will run through January 15, 2018 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.

For the past decade, much of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a National Historic Landmark and sprawling campus of 19th- and 20th-century structures, was closed to the public. Recent efforts to redevelop the St. Elizabeths site have created new opportunities to access and understand its rich architectural legacy, as well as its potential to revitalize one of the city’s most underserved wards.

In concert with this massive transformation, the National Building Museum presents an exhibition that explores the architecture and landscape architecture of St. Elizabeths. The Government Hospital for the Insane, as the campus was originally named, opened in 1855 as a federally-operated facility. The multi-disciplinary exhibition will tell the story of St. Elizabeths’ change over time, reflecting evolving theories of how to care for the mentally ill, as well as the later reconfiguration of the campus as a federal workplace and mixed-use urban development.

An important collection of architectural drawings held by the Library of Congress will anchor the exhibition. These archival materials comprise plans and elevations spanning the period from the 1850s through the 1980s. Drawings include Thomas U. Walter’s plans for the institution’s first structure, the 1855 Center Building, as well as plans for later residential “cottages,” farm structures, and an auditorium. A spectacular 1904 model created for the St. Louis World’s Fair is a dramatic centerpiece for the exhibition.

Supplementing drawings and models will be a wide variety of objects, from medical instruments to patient-created art, introducing visitors to the people who lived and worked at the institution. Photographs, scrapbooks, furnishings, and paintings appear on loan from various museums and archives.

Architecture of an Asylum will present a remarkable story about American healthcare, architectural history, and promising adaptive reuse. Under the General Services Administration’s control since 2004, the historic site—much of it vacant and deserted for decades—is now undergoing massive change. Visitors, always curious about the troubled history of mental health care, and interested in expansive plans for urban renewal, will be fascinated by the surprising story of this hospital and its urban campus.

Among the NLM collection items featured in Architecture of an Asylum are:

  • The Sun Dial (patient newsletter). Washington, St. Elizabeths Hospital, 1917-1929.
  • Annual Report and Census, U.S. Asylum for Insane Indians. Canton, SD: 1926.
  • Edward B. Vedder and William H. Hough. Prevalence of Syphilis Among the Inhabitants of the Government Hospital for the Insane. Chicago: American Medical Association [1915].
  • Isaac W. Blackburn, Gross Morbid Anatomy of the Brain in the Insane. Washington, DC: GPO, 1908.
  • St. Elizabeths Hispanic Program.  Washington, DC, National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations (U.S.) c. 1980.  

NLM joins a number of prominent organizations in loaning items to the National Building Museum for this important exhibition, including the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, the National American History Museum, the Smithsonian Castle Collection, and the National Museum of Health & Medicine. 

NLM loans items from its history of medicine collections for display in public exhibitions to qualifying institutions on a case by case basis. Details about this loan program, and loans which the NLM has arranged since 2012, are available here.

Plate 31: The superior surface of a brain of chronic dementia with cerebral atrophy – a photograph of the top exterior surface of a brainPlate 47: A case of chronic acquired circumscribed internal hydrocephalus – a photograph of a cross section of a brain from the side.

Images from Isaac W. Blackburn, Gross morbid anatomy of the brain in the insane. Washington, DC: GPO, 1908. Isaac Blackburn, the first neuropathologist hired by St. Elizabeths, ran the laboratory of the hospital for several decades beginning in 1884. Using autopsy and the new study of psychopathology, scientists at St. Elizabeths studied the physical manifestations of mental illness.
Courtesy National Library of Medicine


The National Building Museum is America’s leading cultural institution dedicated to advancing the quality of the built environment by educating people about its impact on their lives. Through its exhibitions, educational programs, online content, and publications, the Museum has become a vital forum for the exchange of ideas and information about the world we build for ourselves. Public inquiries: 202.272.2448 or visit Connect with the museum on Twitter: @BuildingMuseum and Facebook.


The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is a leader in research in biomedical informatics and data science and the world’s largest biomedical library. NLM conducts and supports research in methods for recording, storing, retrieving, preserving, and communicating health information. NLM creates resources and tools that are used billions of times each year by millions of people to access and analyze molecular biology, biotechnology, toxicology, environmental health, and health services information. Additional information is available at

Last Reviewed: February 15, 2017