On a recent trip to visit a friend in Pennsylvania, I was able to cross another item off my “bucket list,” the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.
The Mütter Museum was founded in 1858, when Thomas Dent Mütter, a Professor of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College, bequeathed his personal collection of medical and pathological specimens to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia with the requirement that his collection be added to, a building erected to house it, and that the items be the subject of regular educational lectures and research.
In addition to Dr. Mütter’s specimens, the museum houses an extensive collection of medical anomalies and pathological specimens, antique surgical instruments, wax anatomical models, and other medical items.
Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed in the Mütter, so I was unable to take any photographs. However, artist James G. Mundie was allowed to make sketches and snap numerous photographs of the Mütter’s collections and has graciously granted me permission to post some of his images here. For more images from his portfolio, please visit his website at James G. Mundie Art | Mütter Museum.
While I have a lifelong fear of hospitals and medical procedures, I’ve long been fascinated by the strange, and the Mütter offers plenty of strange. From books bound in human skin to pickled punks (stillborn infants in jars) to slides containing slivers of Albert Einstein’s brain, the Mütter is probably not for the weak of stomach. In fact, my friend quit halfway through the exhibition and waited for me in the lobby.
In addition to its permanent collection, the Mütter also offers periodic exhibits. The exhibit on display during my visit was Grimms’ Anatomy, curated by Anna Dhoty and folklorist Linda Lee, which offered real-life examples of the often gruesome oddities depicted in fairy tales–there was a preserved foot (a victim of Chinese foot-binding) in relation to Cinderella’s glass slipper, organs preserved in jars as examples of the damage to internal organs subjected to corsetry,
Included in the permanent collection are the a plaster cast of Cheng and Eng Bunker (as well as their preserved liver), perhaps the most famous Siamese, or conjoined, twins; the infamous Soap Lady; a wall of wax models of various eye deformities and illnesses; early gynecological instruments (which sort of resemble instruments of torture!); various stillborn infants preserved in jars; an ovarian cyst containing hair and teeth; skeletons with numerous deformities, including hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (a disease which causes flesh to turn to bone); and the Hyrtl Skull Collection.
The Hyrtl Skull Collection is a collection of 139 skulls upon most of which Dr. Joseph Hyrtl wrote what he knew about the individual to whom the skull belonged. From a Viennese prostitute to a tightrope walker, the collection includes skulls of murderers, murder victims, and ordinary people, both children and adults. The museum is currently endeavoring to restore and preserve the skulls in this collection and you can “sponsor” a skull through their Save Our Skulls program.
While the museum itself seems small as far as the exhibition areas, upon beginning your tour of the collection, you quickly begin to realize that it is actually quite extensive, and even though I took my time, I don’t think I was able to view every item and am definitely planning on returning at some point in the future.
In summary, the Mütter Museum is a must-see for anyone with the slightest interest in medical anomalies and/or oddities. We may think some of the items included in the collections to be morbid in nature, but the human body is an amazing and mysterious thing.
The Mütter Museum, located at 19 S 22nd Street, is open 7 days a week from 10am-5pm, excluding Thanksgiving, Dec 24 and 25, and January 1. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for children (5 & under free), with discounts for seniors, military, etc. For another $5, you can purchase joint admission to theMütter and the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; I chose this option and received a voucher for one admission to the Penn Museum (which is good for one year from the date of my visit).