In Awakenings, Eleanor Costello rejects Dr. Malcolm Sayer's idea, which is to take patients who have recently come out of catatonia to a museum, by mocking like this:

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Dr. Malcolm Sayer: The Museum of Natural History...

Eleanor Costello: Oh, no, no. I don't think so. Just a lot of dead stuffed things. You know....

so they finally took them to dance bar.

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Why would taking these patients to a museum cause a problem for them?

  • 5
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't the patients in Awakenings physically ill by basically having slept their whole lives? Mar 13, 2017 at 8:53
  • 1
    @TobiasKienzler Agreed - it was a disease of the brain, but that does not make it a mental illness.
    – Wossname
    Mar 13, 2017 at 21:29
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    I question the premise. Properly speaking, the question should be, "Why did Eleanor believe _____?" Your wording of the question assumes that she is/was right.
    – Wildcard
    Mar 14, 2017 at 3:58

3 Answers 3


Because taking a mentally ill patient (especially a group of patients) who is accustomed to only a hospital setting out into a public place such as the Museum of Natural History is a risky proposition.

There are several risk factors to consider for the safety of the patient as well as the safety of the public.

There are so many different triggers that can have a negative effect on a mentally ill individual. A museum might cause a trigger that could lead to SIB (Self injurious behavior). This might be caused by a crowd of people quietly concentrating on an object or the person could see something that triggers a traumatic event or even scares them. A museum would be the last place that you would want to take a group of mentally ill patients. They could not only cause harm to themselves or others, but could easily destroy property.

Speaking from experience on taking a mentally ill individual out into public, there needs to be careful preparation before you could do this.

  • you would need to know what the individual is triggered by.
  • Once you know the triggers, you need to create a scenario for them to have a safe place if a trigger is encountered.
  • You would need to be prepared for public reaction.

The preparation for an endeavor such as a trip to the Museum of Natural History would take months to prepare a group of mentally ill patients for.

At a museum, it is usually quiet. It is usually filled with replicas or "stuffed dead things" as stated in your question. This can be frightening to a mentally ill patient. I remember being afraid at a museum when I was a child, so imagine how frightening it might be for a mentally ill patient. Another thing that museums have a lot of is children. Depending on the mental illness of each individual, these can be extremely unsettling and can set off several different triggers for a mentally ill individual.

It has been a while since I have seen this film, but these patients have been in a hospital setting for years without being in the public. Suddenly introducing them into the public by taking them to a museum is really one of the worst places that you could introduce a group like this into the public.

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    @Jason Uhm...the question was a direct line from the movie. The answer answered the question about the context of the movie. The question asked about mentally ill patients...that movie had mentally ill patients. I don't understand your comment at all. Mar 13, 2017 at 16:50
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    @Jason Okay...but that was only short lived. That medication only worked for a short time. The majority of the patients reverted back to their previous state. My answer states that the taxidermied animals would frighten them. They were still mentally ill patients and nobody is reaching too deep into symbolism. Mar 13, 2017 at 17:05
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    The whole movie is about their "awakening" and then falling back into catatonia, and moreover that their mental state when awake is a lot more normal than it was typical to think of for patients with mental diseases. The idea that they are somehow unable to process animals in a museum like normal people is hardly congruent with the tone of the movie. The image of the nurse striking a taxidermied pose is strikingly similar to some of the positions of the earlier catatonic patients.
    – Jason
    Mar 13, 2017 at 19:28
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    This is an excellent answer to the question posed in the title, if it were on a psychology stack exchange. It doesn't make sense in the context of this film, whose characters were not actually "mentally ill" in the sense you describe but rather survivors of encephalitis lethargica, suffering (or at this point in the movie, in remission) from a kind of brain damage-induced catatonia.
    – 1006a
    Mar 13, 2017 at 21:36
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    I agree with the other posters: this answers perfectly the question from the title, but it does not take the movies context into consideration in any way, and I think this special sentence can only be answered from the mocies context...
    – Tode
    Mar 14, 2017 at 7:15

I don't think, that this was meant as a "general" advice when acting with mentally ill people.

Knowing the movie the answer to your question can be directly found in the sentence from Eleanor: The effected people have been catatonic for a long time (due to their encephalitis), indeed looking like "dead stuffed" for a very long time.

Only the new medicine brought them back to life, and showing them something (dead stuffed things) that might remind them of their own time trapped in their own bodies, reminding them of their own destiny might not be a very good idea or could even be seen as "cruel"

So I think that here sentence has to be taken literally (dead stuffed)

  • 3
    Yep, she's essentially saying it might not be the best idea to take patients who had until recently been catatonic and in a state similar to paralyzed to go look at a bunch of animals stuck in permanent stasis much like they had been. The contrast of going dancing is pretty telling - they just got back the ability to move, let's let 'em dance.
    – Jason
    Mar 13, 2017 at 16:46

I always thought it was more of a commentary on what the different people thought was fun. Dr. Malcolm Sayer is the kind of person who chose to spend a tremendous amount of time doing tedious work like extracting nerve tissue from worms (if I recall correctly). His idea of something fun to do was to go to botanical gardens and natural history museums. If you watch the movie you can see that the primary complaint was boredom, not danger/risk. When they go dancing everyone seems to be having a fun time except Dr. Malcolm who is out of his element.

Here is a copy of the movie (which may be pulled due to copyright reasons). You can see the scene around the 1:32:00 mark.

If anyone can find a clip of just the relevant scene I'd greatly appreciate an edit. I only included the clip I did because I couldn't find just the scene I wanted.

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