Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
May 13, 2010
On a recent trip to Philadelphia I had the opportunity to revisit The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, to see what’s changed since last exploring this mecca of medical oddities and squirm-inducing equipment in 2004.
The Mütter likes to downplay its freak show side with a sober, respectful and academic presentation of its holdings. There’s dark wooden cabinetry, discreet explanatory cards, understated lighting. But really, when your most popular must-see items include a giant colon, a plaster cast of the torso of Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and a withered waxy “Soap Lady”…who are you kidding?
I’ve always been struck by how many families consider the Mütter to be an acceptable and fun outing for the kiddies. I know that my own childhood psyche would have been seriously disturbed by the sight of wax models of skin diseases and that ever-haunting display of deformed fetuses floating in jars. But I have to admit, the kids I saw seemed to be having a grand old time pointing, squealing and making “I’m gonna puke” faces. Maybe the family that goes “yuck” together stays stuck together.
The Mütter justifies our interest in the extreme and gory by putting it in an educational context, giving us permission to indulge our attraction to the entertainingly gruesome.
So what’s new? Well, the “Soap Lady” has lost her prominent placement in the main gallery and has been shuffled off to a side room. She appears to scream in protest (Actually, she’s always looked like that.). She currently shares the space with an exhibit about Presidential death and a display of shrunken human heads (both real and fake) from the Jivaro Tribe. I would have appreciated more information on the actual process of head-shrinking (a rare occasion where the Mutter staff passed on an opportunity to be deeply disgusting).
A more spare and brightly-lit back gallery showcases The Mütter’s new nod to artiness. The current exhibit is “Corporeal Manifestations”: a collection of “ceramic figurative work” which explores the “psychology of our biological existence.” I’d really prefer that the Mutter abandon attempts at promoting creative expression to make room for more sliced-up body parts and photographs of singing conjoined twins. Anyway, no human hand can possibly top the aesthetic perfection of their existing collection of delicate ossicles and labyrinths of the ear!
The Mütter is a conventional museum in one sense: there’s a gift shop! You can pick up your own copy of their famous calendar, along with T-shirts, books, shot glasses and other reminders of your horrifying visit. As there is a strict “no photography” policy, a wider array of postcards would be appreciated. The giant colon postcard is the only truly weird one I found in stock.
All in all, The Mütter is our nation’s most perfectly realized medical museum, striking a skillful balance between information and titillation. It’s a wonderfully stimulating reminder of the myriad ways our fleshy incarnations can go horribly, horribly wrong. [Post by Anne D. Bernstein]