The boy has shown little interest in the Mütter Museum. Mostly, he has made loops around his mother, with his sweatshirt wrapped over his face. Above him, in the museum’s balconied upper viewing area, patrons study mounted skeletons and brain tissue samples on slides in the glass cases that line the walls. Down the wide staircase is the main lower gallery, where most of the museum’s famed content is on display. The boy makes his circles near the base of the staircase. Finally, before a display of an oversized colon, he finds something he can appreciate: “This guy has an overgrown whoopee cushion!” “Overgrown” is an understatement. The colon measures nearly nine feet in length.
Weekday mornings at the Mütter Museum of Medical History are hushed, but the boy’s humor is hardly out of place. Families and couples creep along the displays, whispering—occasionally loud enough that a joke can be overheard about extreme constipation due to corset wearing, or about the height of the tallest skeleton or about the Soap Lady, whose body fat decomposed in a way that left her embalmed.
“It’s like Human Centipede,” a teenage boy says of a set of Siamese twins. “How did they get a two–month old fetus… skeleton? And why does it look so angry? Why does it look evil?” His friend murmurs about the babies’ vile appearances, which is oddly appropriate since the study of abnormalities of physiological development is called teratology, which comes from the Greek teras logos, the study of monsters. This etymology is posted above a wall of preserved, abnormal fetuses—an exhibit that made the young boy with the sweatshirt visibly uncomfortable when his mother lingered over its contents. Another mother who visited the display with her children whispered, “Can you imagine?”
“Kids get freaked out,” a young Allied Barton security guard tells me. “The little boys like it more than the little girls. Sometimes the parents say, ‘you can go sit in the lobby.’”
Children may get freaked out in the Mütter Museum, but according to Penn senior Julio Cesar Albarracin, parents can be found in the lobby, too. Julio visited the museum this summer on a tour arranged for the Summer Undergraduate Minority Research Program he participated in. An administrator of the program opted to come along for the visit. As a mother of young children, she couldn’t make it past an exhibit on pregnancy that featured skeletons of both mother and her baby.
Julio and his fellow researchers, many of whom are pre–med, were predictably less appalled by the Mütter’s representations of the human body. Their biggest shock of the day was more likely the age of their docents: Philadelphia high school students who were members of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program. One of the program’s tasks calls for each student to learn and speak about one exhibit in the museum so that, as a group, the fellows can give an informed tour. Julio was impressed with the high schoolers, some of whom became involved because they dreamt of being trauma surgeons.
Of course, not every parent wants his or her child to deal in the macabre and medical. Sarah Tse, a junior majoring in biology and photo editor for 34th Street Magazine, interns at the Mütter. She admits that she hasn’t disclosed the full extent of her work with her parents, for fear they’d be “upset or grossed out.” Her fears may not be unfounded: knowing that your daughter spends her afternoons taking tissue samples from jarred fetuses would unsettle many parents. Sarah first visited the Museum her sophomore year and remembers longing to stay when her friends were “freaked out and eager to leave.” At the time, she was going on her second year working in a research lab at Penn and wanted to try something different. “It was literally an epiphany one day,” she remembers, “when it occurred to me, ‘I wonder if they take undergrad interns?’” They did and she was hired. “In the beginning, I shadowed the collections manager, but now that I have a better idea of what I’m doing, he can just tell me what needs to be done, and I do it.” Sometimes what needs to be done is to change the preservative fluid of the fetuses from the jars they float in.
Student education, particularly of the hands–on, vocational variety, has been a priority at the Mütter since before the museum was founded. When Doctor Thomas Dent Mütter died in 1858, he left his extensive collection of medical equipment and specimens to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, hoping his trove would contribute to improving and reforming medical education. Mütter was a medical pioneer. Known for his operations on cleft lip and palate, clubfoot, mutilating injuries and congenital anomalies, he could be considered an early plastic surgeon. Mütter’s lifework, though, has been eclipsed by his grisly collection. His reputation is his museum.
While the Mütter has retained its educational purpose, much has changed since it came into being. In 1858, the Civil War hadn’t started; recently, the museum hosted an exhibit on Civil War medicine. The Mütter’s core demographic has seen major changes as well—physicians and medical students no longer make up the majority of visitors. “From our surveys, our core demographic is 18–35, 18–40,” says Anna Dhody, the Museum’s curator. “We’ve never said ‘family friendly,’” Dhody says. “We say disturbingly informative.”
According to Marcy Engleman, Museum Educator, visitors tend to fall into two camps: “Some people are going to come in and be completely grossed out,” Engleman admits. “Some people are going to come in and be completely amazed.” Visitors often excuse themselves, she says, “because it’s just too intense for them. For other people, they can’t get enough. They love it and keep coming back, and they want to see more and they want to ask tons of questions.” Engleman loves the enthusiasm, but she says that she understands both sides.
Engleman’s perspective suggests that, whether appalled or awestruck, any visitor can stand to learn from the exhibits. “One of the things that I take away,” Engleman says, “and I think that a lot of people have taken away from this is, ‘Thank goodness I’m born the way that I am. Thank goodness that I was born normal.’ When you look at all of the possibilities of what could go wrong during the birthing process or trauma that could happen to your body during the course of living, the fact that we look the way that we look is amazing.” “If I were the maternal sort,” Sarah muses, “I’d definitely bring my kids at a young age. I think it fosters a healthy attitude about death.”
With such an extraordinary array of unique physical specimens, it’s natural that the museum would also attract professionals with a background in forensic anthropology. Janet M. Monge, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn, is as a forensic anthropologist who taught Anna Dhody when she was an intern in the Physical Anthropology section of the Penn Museum.
Monge views the Penn Museum and the Mütter Museum as “two locations [whose] brain is in the same place.” “Brain” is a loaded word for Monge. In 2008, she transported 30 of the 139 skulls in the Mütter’s Hyrtl collection to Penn to be scanned and added to the Open Research Scan Archive (formerly the Penn Cranial CT Database). This archive, created by Monge and her colleagues, aims to collect as many scans of human skulls as possible to provide open source cranium data for interdisciplinary analysis. A deeper, more complex understanding of human skulls from across the world is critical to creating a comparative base that historians, anthropologists and medical professionals can use as a reference in their work.
Working with human skulls was nothing new for Professor Monge, who has done extensive research on the Morton skull collection housed in the Penn museum. The scanning of the Hyrtl collection skulls, though, was not as much a research driven endeavor as it was an educational one, a means to continuously develop innovative online learning tools. This collection is unique in its geographic range—the Hyrtl skulls come from from Central and Eastern Europe, two areas that the Morton collection didn’t survey. Moreover it is unique to the Mütter collection in that the skulls each come with a personal narrative that explains who they were and how they died. There is an intimacy in knowing, for instance, that a skull came from a soldier who committed suicide by gunshot to the heart after his tour of duty ended.
The Mütter strikes a pragmatic tone in dealing with death. “We’re very didactic,” Dhody explains. “We’re looking at the specimen through the filter of, ‘This is what it is. This is what causes it. This is how we might treat it. This is how it was treated, maybe, back then.’ You’re not gonna see a skeleton with tuberculosis and say, ‘Look at this suffering individual, how much pain must they have gone through.’” No, she insists, “It’s very diagnostic. We don’t sugarcoat anything.”
The museum staff members may not wax poetic, but they’re known for their dark senses of humor. “It’s been a really unusual environment to work in,” Engleman admits. “You should hear our lunch discussions—they would probably gross out the normal person, but we love it,” she says. “I look forward to coming to work in the morning. I look forward to my lunch break because we have the best conversations.”
Sarah agrees. “A great part about working at the Mütter is that all my coworkers have similar tastes and sensibilities regarding death and disease and things like that. For example, our lunch break conversations often revolve around real murder cases, or shows like ‘Hannibal.’”
Of the staff’s own coping mechanisms and jokes, Engleman explains, “We’re never insensitive, and we’re never disrespectful, which is really important to us. We have learned, through working here, to respect the dead and learn the lessons we can learn from them.” She adds, though, “working in a place like this could be real scary when you think about things that could happen to the body, so having a sense of humor gets you through the day.” Of course, some need humor just to get through an afternoon.
In the afternoons, the museum gets crowded. Visitors laugh nervously, express discomfort and, of course, make their dark jokes.
“Your appendix!” a woman says. Her friend laughs.
A phrase designed to characterize the museum is hung by the main door and reappears throughout the museum, though it is rarely heard aloud. It is a creed, a command: “EXPLORE WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN.” The place where an appreciation of our own mortality meets the inclination to make light of a tragedy, to carry on and to survive—that’s probably a good place to start.