New Multimodal Installation Opens at Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meeting House

Over nearly eight decades, more than 10,000 people lived at the Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Pennsylvania from 1908-1987. Their lives contain its history. Who are they? What do their stories have to say to us today? With generous support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University is pleased to announce the world premiere of File/Life: We Remember Stories of Pennhurst. Part installation, part event, and part community gathering, File/Life will have a strictly limited Philadelphia engagement April 20-23, 2023, at the Arch Street Meeting House.

Each person admitted to Pennhurst was assigned a number and given a file. Over the years, these files were filled with pages. The material held in the Pennhurst archives includes administrative reports, court testimony, diagnostic forms, institutional correspondence, letters from family members, lists of belongings, and/or drawings made by residents. Working in collaboration with a team of artists, seven archivists (all people with disabilities and/or family members) spent the last 20 months sharing stories from the archives that made them listen, feel, imagine, and remember. More than anything, the archived files that were used for this project highlighted how society viewed people with disabilities and their families.

“In order to try and find the lives within the files, we had to read between the lines, look beyond the margins, and imagine,” said Lisa Sonneborn, Director, Media Arts and Culture at the Institute on Disabilities. “We can find glimpses of who they might have been, but to really see the people living at Pennhurst—who and what they loved, what they thought and felt, what they wanted out of life—we have to imagine. Dr. Sally Gould Taylor, Executive Director of the Institute on Disabilities, added, “We understand that the people who lived at Pennhurst are more than what is in their files. We honor their humanity by imagining their lives more fully.”

During the creation process of File/Life, the team assembled each month to learn from one another, to collaborate and create, to process thoughts and feelings, and to dream up ways of telling the stories. Even though the files were, at times, hard to look at, the archivists, two of whom used to live at Pennhurst, and artists found joy and community in creating together, and purpose in sharing these stories. The end result is a multimedia experience that infuses text, art, video, sound, and other mediums to ask the question: Can a file ever contain a life?

File/Life will feature a series of interactive, larger than life “case files” that tell the stories of six individuals who were lovingly studied by the community archivists. Additionally, two community archivists, both former Pennhurst residents, elected to tell their own stories. Attendees will be able to interact with each piece of the installation via electronic tablets that feature video, photos, and prompts to reflect on the stories that are shared during the event.

A final room of the installation will feature a large multimedia cube that displays responses from visitors in real time as a way for the community to share in the collective event.

The archivists include Jonathan Atiencia, Harold Gordon, Ramona Griffiths, Cecilia and Jacob Lee, Danielle Moore, and Frank Orr–more information on them can be found below. The creative team includes David Bradley, Biany Perez, Nicki Pombier, María Teresa Rodríguez, and Margery Sly. Design is by Each + Every, led by Alex Catanese. Catanese’s team includes Cait Giambroni, Leah Day, and Mike Schut.

File/Life has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage is a multidisciplinary grant maker and hub for knowledge-sharing, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, dedicated to fostering a vibrant cultural community in Greater Philadelphia. The Center invests in ambitious, imaginative, and catalytic work that showcases the region’s cultural vitality and enhances public life, and engages in an exchange of ideas concerning artistic and interpretive practice with a broad network of cultural practitioners and leaders.

Tickets to the event are free. Complete information is available on the Institute on Disabilities website.