My emphasized area of study in my grad program was “museum studies.” I learned a lot about museum operations and exhibition design. Contemporary exhibition design practices call for elaborate interactive exhibit sets that engage users in a variety of ways — kind of like Disney Land, but with educational components. We learned all about the importance of incorporating auditory, visual, and hands-on elements in each exhibit so that all learning types would feel welcome. One professor even went so far as suggesting olfactory elements (yes, smells) to entice viewers. (smellers?) We learned that nobody wants to visit a museum that just has a bunch of “old stuff” and long description labels on display… no one, that is, except me.
For me, the only reason to go to a museum is to see things you can’t normally see and learn things that you can’t normally learn. I love authentic “old stuff” and detailed scholarship. I am the type of person who actually tries to read all of the panels of object descriptions in a museum. I am so intrigued by the notion of cabinet of curiosities that it borders on obsession. The Mutter Museum, in Philadelphia, is something of a medical cabinet of curiosities that has been maintained and displayed for over 200 years.
The Mutter Museum is an arm of theThe College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded in 1787 and the oldest professional medical organization in the country. The Museum was originally organized in 1858 using the personal medical collection of Thomas Dent Mutter, a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College. It was originally intended to be a teaching library for medical students, but as its collection grew (now with more than 25,000 objects) the museum moved into its current larger building and was opened to the public.
The museum collection contains everything from medical instruments and wax models to fluid-preserved anatomic specimens and skeletons. There is a collection of over 139 human skulls, shrunken heads, and even preserved fetuses. It is intense.
I was very much looking forward to visiting the Mutter Museum and was afraid I had hyped it too much in my own head, but it did not disappoint. I am very interested in things relating to health and medicine and I am glad I got to visit the museum with my brother, who is nearly done with medical school. He explained many things as we spent four hours touring the exhibits.
We were intrigued by the iron lung on display (and the fact that, as of 2008, there were still 30 patients still using them) and we took our time at the exhibit on criminal and forensic pathology. We weren’t as excited about the collection of animal skulls, but the human skulls were mesmerizing. I learned a lot about tumors and infections from the collection of disturbing wax models, and I was stunned by the pieces of tanned human skin. I am glad that we saved the section about genetic abnormalities for last because the preserved fetuses made me very sad and worried about the health of my own future children… I told you, it was intense.
In school we endlessly debated the ethical questions surrounding museum collections. (Like, should museums retain items taken from other cultures? And, who gets to decide what is museum worthy and what is not?) The questions get even more complicated when you are dealing with actual human remains. Some believe that displaying human body parts is disrespectful or even religiously blasphemous, and I am sure that the Mutter Museum has received its fair share of criticism.
Personally, I am thrilled that the Mutter exists for laypeople like myself who want to learn more about medicine and take more responsibility for their own bodies and health. I definitely rely on doctors as the experts, but I also want to be as educated as possible when it comes to my health. I am so glad that the Mutter has preserved their historic collection so that the humans whose bodies are represented in the collection can continue to educate visitors. Of course, many of the humans who are included in the collection did not get to decide whether or not to donate their remains… which is where things get tricky. So, for future reference, I am putting this in writing: I want to donate my body to science, education, and/or art.
Overall, the Mutter Museum was an amazing and somewhat overwhelming experience. I learned a lot about what can go wrong with the human body and also about man’s attempt to fix those problems. I definitely recommend the museum to anyone who is open to viewing human remains.
If you are interested in the Mutter Museum, check out their website or follow them on Twitter. Photography is not allowed in the museum, but occasionally professional photographers are allowed to interpret the museum through their camera lens. You can see some of those photos here. The Mutter also has an incredible museum store. It includes commissioned fine art and craft items, plus unique gift items exclusively created for the museum using images from the collections. I ended up buying quite a few things, including the fine art photography book.