Charities and Corrections: Life at the State Institutions Exhibit

Historically significant things belong in the public eye. “If you have a [signed] painting of George Washington hanging over your mantle at home, what good is that?” says Ken Carlson, reference archivist at the Rhode Island State Archives in Providence.

A collection of photographs from Rhode Island’s state institutons

Such is the spirit behind Mr. Carlson’s latest curated exhibit, “Charities and Corrections: Life at the State Institutions”; a fascinating foray into the history of Rhode Island’s public hospitals and institutions: the State Infirmary, the Oaklawn School for Girls, the Sockanosset School for Boys, the State Prison, and the Asylum for the Insane, among others.

On the corner of Westminster Street, behind the brightly decorated facade of the Victorian-era State Archives building — originally an art gallery over a century ago — a menagerie of rarely-glimpsed artifacts lie in state just beyond a plate glass window looking out upon the modern bustle of the busy city sidewalk.

A corner of the exhibit, Corrections And Charities: Life at the State Institutions

In one among several large display cases, colorful maps of the Sockanosset and Oaklawn schools frame a detailed, hand-drawn sketch of the girls’ school cemetery; an inmate’s admission card and portrait lie atop, aside and slightly askew. In another, a hand-sewn Raggedy Ann doll rests rank-in-file alongside a collection of stitchings, woodwork, and crafts; the handiwork of patients from the tuberculosis sanitorium at Wallum Lake.

“[We were] ‘picture poor’,” said Mr. Carlson, motioning toward a wall of photographs as he told a familiar story of how only years prior they were saved, literally from the scrap heap, by a former state worker who rescued the antique glass plate negatives from a dumpster during the renovation of a state building, before donating them to the Archives.

In fact many of the items on display were collected by donation, including a trove of documents belonging to the State Prison. Deemed a fire hazard by officials in the wake of a blaze caused by an inmate uprising in the 1990s, the correctional institution’s leather-bound, 1800s ledger, and the century-old handwritten letters of a murderer describing his escape plan, are among many of the things now on public display because of the circumspection of those who saw value in their conservation.

All that remains of the cemetery at the Oaklawn School For Girls is this map

Thoughtfully arranged and carefully preserved, the “Charities and Corrections” exhibit is a collection as spellbinding for the scholar as it is for the casual observer; a veritable treasure chest of never-seen-before relics from a history too often left to the shadows of our society’s past. Thanks to people like Mr. Carlson and the donors who made this work possible, it will not be a history soon forgotten.

“Charities and Corrections: Life at the State Institutions” will be on display through March 31, weekdays 8:30 to 4:30, at the Rhode Island State Archives; 337 Westminster Street, Providence. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

Though a visit to the State Archives would be well worth your while, a small selection of photographs from the exhibit may also be viewed online at

[originally published March 2, 2016]