Hyperrhiz 12

Uncovering the Campus: Memory, Space and Trauma

Félix Burgos
University of Maryland Baltimore County

Citation: Burgos, Félix. “Uncovering the Campus: Memory, Space and Trauma.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 12, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/012.am03

Abstract: Uncovering the Campus: Memory, Space and Trauma is an ongoing multimodal project that explores the dissonant heritage of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Campus. The project makes emphasis on the connection between UMBC and the Spring Grove State Hospital through a tour that digitally relocates the Hillcrest Building, a facility that hosted criminally insane patients, on its former space within the campus. Based on Gregory L. Ulmer's conception of electronic monumentality, Uncovering the Campus becomes a testimonial present everywhere and nowhere. The project currently is developed as a website that includes a story unfolds through a series of maps, images, and videos that reflect upon changes and reconfiguration of space, the construction of collective memory, and trauma.

Uncovering the Campus: Memory, Space and Trauma is an ongoing multimodal project that explores the dissonant heritage of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Campus. By dissonant heritage I refer to acts of memorialization of places or messages "that society, or sections of it, would rather not hear themselves or permit others to hear" (Tunbdrige & Ashworth, 1996). Therefore, the project recovers the connection between UMBC and the Spring Grove State Hospital, as the university was built on the terrains that used to belong to the asylum. Uncovering the campus is an electronic memorial present everywhere and nowhere that commemorates the science and experimentation, knowledge and insanity of both sites. The project currently is developed as a website that includes a series of maps, narrations, images that reflect upon changes and reconfiguration of space, the construction of collective memory, and trauma.

UMBC was built on the former terrain of the Spring Grove State Hospital in 1963. Since then, UMBC has physically expanded by construction of new buildings and facilities. However, besides photographic and documental archives that are available in UMBC's library Special Collections, the history that linked UMBC to Spring Grove has disappeared from the community's memory. For example, members of the UMBC community have forgotten that, until 2007, the Hillcrest building (a house that hosted criminally insane patients) was part of the university's landscape. Most members of the university do not even know that Spring Grove is within easy walking distance to the main campus.

Historical Context

This project was conceived when I learned that the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was built on the grounds of the Spring Grove State Hospital, a psychiatric facility located in Catonsville, Maryland. Plowed fields, barns, greenhouses, pig pens, chicken coops, and septic tanks constituted the 425 acres that the University of Maryland acquired in 1963. The Hillcrest Building, a Georgian-style construction that occupied the northern section of the land (also called the Hillcrest Colony), was the most notable building on the site. Built in 1921, Hillcrest (or the Criminal Building) was the "first structure in the history of the United States to be designed specifically for the containment and rehabilitation of criminally insane patients" (Blank, 2009, p. 39). One of the most relevant characteristics of Spring Grove as a mental institution was its policy of moral management which consisted on a "patient-centered plan of care, often removed from the pressures of daily life in a relaxing environment" (Blank, 2009, p. 41). Although the same policy applied to Hillcrest, the administration decided to locate the building one-mile away from the main campus to assure the security of personnel and other patients. It is difficult to tell how successful Hillcrest was in terms of the treatment it provided to its population, but according to some records, the administration had to create special containment rooms for unruly patients within the building.

Hillcrest provided services to criminally insane patients for more than four decades. However, its decline is associated with the dark era that mental institutions faced in the late 40s. This period was characterized by the "increased patient populations combined with decreased operational funding (which) affected the quality and frequency of daily care and therapeutic activities" (Schoeberlein, 2003, p. 37). As a response to this situation, the state of Maryland allocated resources to repair and build new facilities in Spring Grove, and to relocate patients to other institutions or to send them back to their homes. However, Hillcrest was not fully included in the restructuring plans as another facility for the criminality insane, the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Jessup, Maryland, opened its doors in 1959 (Blank, 2009). This was the time when the 'Criminal Building' was abandoned for the first time.

Years later, the State of Maryland, officially transferred Spring Grove's 'abandoned' tract of land to the University of Maryland to build its Baltimore County branch. Hillcrest was internally modified to serve as the campus' first administration building, although it was still away from the 'academic core,' which was being built on the central section of the terrain. Once the new administration building was completed, Hillcrest became the home of student organizations and its basement served as a social club known as The Rattskeller (Blank, 2009). Nonetheless, by 2004, Hillcrest was abandoned for the second time. In that year, UMBC decided to raze Hillcrest arguing "issues of monetary inflexibility and the lack of space on campus" (Blank, 2009, p. 52). Although a student-led initiative and the Hillcrest Historical Society provided compelling arguments to preserve the life of the building (mainly because of its architectural and historical significance), UMBC made effective the decision to raze the building in 2007. It is interesting that after eight years, the terrain that Hillcrest used to occupy is still an underused empty space. The current UMBC masterplan proposes that by 2019 the space will be used as the plot of land for a recreational facility for the residents of the surrounding dorms (UMBC, 2010).

The Project

This project is a prototype of how the memorialization of a difficult past takes place in a digital environment. The convergence of (hi)story, maps, juxtapositions, and videos make of Uncovering the Campus a model of electronic monumentality. Based on Gregory Ulmer's Electronic Monuments (2005), I conceive the map as a testimonial. Ulmer defines this concept as a "second-hand mode of access to knowledge or information about the world" (p. xxix). The testimonial could be easily understood as a monument that is occupies a particular space to "represent" something (patriotism, sacrifice, etc.). However, the testimonial requires actions from the individuals who are in contact with it. Put differently, individuals not only 'admire' the monument, but also enter into a process of reflection where it is possible to recover (or to mourn) what has been lost. Since the testimonial "is a montage of documents (journals, video interviews, photographs)" (Ulmer, et al. 2012), Uncovering the Campus becomes a practice of memorialization on the Internet. It must be considered that the testimonial in this project distances from the positive notions of memorialization, that is, pride or honor, as it focuses on the difficult past of a place and unburies it for everyone to see. The practice of re-locating the ghost of the Hillcrest building (the criminal building) on the campus' map and consciousness of the community aims to bring people's attention to issues of the construction of positive narratives, mourning, and the stigma of mental health. In the future, the website will include testimonies (oral narrations) of people who were housed in other mental institutions as a manner to bring back to the campus discussions about mental health and its stigma.

This prototype also serves as a model for complex issues of memory and trauma at a broader scale. Specifically, I intend to extend this form of electronic monumentality to the context of memory and memorialization in Colombia (my country of origin). The country is currently experiencing a proliferation of initiatives of memory connected to Colombia's armed conflict. The community of victims, NGO's, and governmental bodies are currently working on creating spaces of memorialization and connecting the country around the historical and collective memory of the country. Nonetheless, it is necessary to recognize that the traumatic memory of 60 years of armed conflict generate a series of conflicting narratives and modes of memorialization. My current research focuses on the difficulty of recognizing and representing trauma in the middle of the armed conflict. In this sense, it is important to investigate how mourning and trauma can be represented in Colombia's digital landscape, which can be a decisive space where fragmented communities are able to represent their pain or lack of it.

VIEW Uncovering the Campus


This project is the result of several conversations and brainstorming exercises with several people. I am indebted to Dr. Craig Saper and my classmates in the Electracy class of Spring 2013. Many of the documents used in Uncovering the Campus were obtained at UMBC's Special Collections. Finally, I am grateful to Dr. Trevor J. Blank who shared several high-quality images for this project.

The majority of images used in the videos and maps on the website were based on archival materials collected through research at UMBC Special Collections and the Maryland Archives. Also, Dr. Trevor J. Blank kindly shared some images from his investigation on the Hillcrest Building.

Works Cited

Blank, Trevor J. "Contesting the Contested: Preservation Politics, Collective Memory, and the First Institution for the Criminally Insane in America." Material Culture 41.1 (2009): 39-60. Print.

Helsel, David S., and Trevor J. Blank. Spring Grove State Hospital. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Print. Images of America.

Schoeberlein, Robert W. ""Maryland's Shame": Photojournalism and Mental Health Reform, 1935-1949." Maryland Historical Magazine 98.1 (2003): 35-72. Print.

Tunbridge, John E., and Gregory J. Ashworth. Dissonant Heritage: the Management of the Past as Resource in Conflict. New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1996. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Electronic Monuments. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 2005. Print. Electronic Meditations 15.

Ulmer, Gregory, Barbara Jo Revelle, William Tilson, and John Craig Freeman. "Miami Virtue & The Ulmer Tapes". Small Cities Imprint 3.2 (2012). Web.

University of Maryland Baltimore County. UMBC Facilities Master Plan Update 2009-2019. Adelphi (2010). Web.