I and progeny had a great time over Easter weekend, with a day trip down to Philadelphia and a pilgrimage to a place I’d long wanted to visit, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.
Founded in 1863, the Mütter offers a rare chance to have a museum experience not unlike the kind Americans enjoyed in the mid-19th century — a bit sensational. The saving grace, and the reason that it continues to thrive to the present day (with this era’s pesky “academic standards”) is that the Mütter’s exhibitions are of genuine scientific (and nowadays also historical) value. You get to learn something, and it’s also smashing good entertainment.
The Mütter is a medical museum. Its displays are made up almost entirely of representations of human anomalies, pathologies, disorders, diseases, deformations and deviations. In a word: freaks. As an introductory feint we are presented with slides containing actual segments of Albert Einstein’s brain, sliced as thin as prosciutto. That’s about as healthy as we get, and it’s fairly hilarious in a Barnumesque way. Who’s to say those aren’t pieces of a dog’s brain? I mean, can you see the astrophysics going on inside? Almost all the rest of the museum is made up of bones and complete skeletons, specimens in glass jars, photographs, and wax or plaster models.
For our phrenological edification, there are the Hyrtl Skulls, scores of former human heads arrayed on a grid, helpfully labelled as to their former identities, ranging from “Girolamo Zini, Rope Walker“, to a denizen of Ancient Egypt. One, full of pits and holes as though it were made of chalk, suffered from “syphilitic necrosis”. (Soldiers, take care where you spend your leave pay!) Nearby, we find a horn that once grew out of the forehead of Madame Dimanche. The skeleton of a 7′ 6″ giant stands next to that of a dwarf, across from a wax bust of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. H’m…what else. Ovarian cysts the size of basketballs. An enlarged colon about the size of a fairly terrifying moray eel. The skeleton of Harry Eastlack, an osssified man who suffered from the rare condition fibrodysplasia ossificans. The alien-like skeleton of a hydrocephalic six year old with a head the size of a medicine ball. And man-made strangeness: Peruvian skulls with trepanation holes, a woman’s ribcage warped by corsets. Many jars containing the remains of lucky little souls who never got past the starting gate. The most extreme one I saw was a pair of conjoined twins, each of whom had a cleft palate.
A special exhibition Bodies at War shows bones shattered by bullets and balls during the Civil War. Grimm’s Anatomy illustrates famous fairy tales with relevant body parts (Hansel’s finger, a lock of Rapunzel’s hair).
And, just in case David Cronenberg shows up, there are dozens of surgical instruments on view. Scalpels, shears, bone cutters. A tooth key, for twisting out stubborn molars. Ouch!
The museum has strict rules about behavior: no photos, no touching, no lying on the floor (which I guess means no fainting). It’s physically small and well attended with the enthusiastically curious. Inevitably, one encounters teenage girls giggling, screaming and running away from the display cases. Perplexing to me were the number of small children I saw there with parents. Don’t get me wrong. Starting when I was about ten years old I was seriously gung-ho for this kind of thing and have never waned in my enthusiasm since. But for little ones? The place is kind of a nightmare factory.
Is there something sick about a fascination with such stuff? I asked myself this as I toured the Mütter, and quickly answered it. Tragedy, comedy and freak shows have one major component in common. Human beings become interested when things go “wrong”, when they encounter something they don’t see every day. This is why it’s often said that the line between comedy and tragedy is razor thin. For the most part, the exhibitions at the Mütter Museum evoke our pity and our compassion. This room is the record of a LOT of human suffering. The sick person would be someone who could look on it with indifference and NOT be interested.
Learn more here http://muttermuseum.org/