The Mutter Museum – Philadelphia

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One of the main reasons why I wanted to visit Philadelphia was to see the Mutter Museum. It has been on my “must visit” list for far too long. I am happy to report that not only did I get to visit the museum, but, it lived up to my expectations. The museum is named after Thomas Dent Mutter who was a physician and Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (for the record I have never used the word “of” so much in one sentence).  Throughout his life, Mutter acquired a substantial teaching collection including human specimens and medical instruments. On his death, 1 700 objects were bequeathed to the College. Today, that number has grown to over 25 000.

Here is a run down of what exactly you’d find in the collection:

Wet Specimens – biological material preserved in a fluid (alcohol or water)

Skeletal Specimens – whole skeletons or bone fragments

Models – anatomical models used for teaching

Instruments – an array of medical equipment and apparatus

The museum continues to collect specimens that adhere to their Collection Management Policy. Interestingly, this policy is not available online to download and peruse. I would love to know if they continue to collect human remains or if they are solely collecting instruments/models. From a bit more research, I found that they are open to people donating artworks and are actively trying to grow their art collection.

So why exactly would somewhere continue to display body parts if they are no longer used for teaching purposes? According to their website:

“The goal of the Museum is to help visitors understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

This essentially means that by showing such objects, the history and heritage of medicine can be displayed and unravelled. What makes things difficult and incredibly problematic with medical museums is the issue of human remains. It is such a rich debate that has overshadowed medical museums in the modern era. I researched this area of museology numerous times during my Masters degree and while it is fascinating, I want to focus my review on what we saw.

Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden

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I am going to start with my absolute favourite part of the museum. Separate from the permanent display, the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Plant Garden was just everything I hoped for and more. It is a beautiful little garden containing over sixty different types of plants/herbs. These have all had some historical or even contemporary value to medicine. The plant labels each contain the common name of the plant, scientific name, and its more common usages.

Simply strolling around the garden was an educational experience. I am so impressed that the museum has continued to care for and grow this garden because I truly think it added that extra element to the museum experience.

Temporary Exhibition – Lisa Nilsson “Collective Tissue”

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Another highlight for me was the temporary exhibition by Lisa Nilsson. On first viewing the works, they look like actual cross sections of hearts, brains, etc. On closer inspection, you can see that they have been made from paper quills. I should disclose that one thing I love more than plants and medicine is art and medicine. There is something so satisfying in seeing the arts and science combine and work together.

The most beautiful part of the works was the gold highlights you can see in the images made from the gilt edges of old books. They are stunning works of art that show the human body as a thing of beauty. It is also worth noting that the artist tried to make them as close to anatomically correct as possible.

Permanent Display

The permanent display of the Mutter Museum covers two medium-sized floors and is undergoing a transformation from cabinet of curiosities to a more modern exhibition space. For example, on the ground floor there are two full-sized skeletons on display, separated by a thematic panel. They are both female skeletons with one showing the effects of wearing corsets on the ribcage and other bones. The panel explained why women wore corsets and the long-standing health implications that many experienced.

There are many well-known objects on display including the soap lady, parts of Einstein’s brain, a vertebrae from John Wilkes Booth, and a full Civil War amputation field kit. Just by googling the museum you can see all of this online and get a taste for the types of objects that greet visitors while they explore. Instead of re-hashing this information, I am going to focus more on the layout of the display.

When you first walk into the space, you feel as though you have stepped back in time and into someone’s private collection. Although there are modern elements, the cabinets scream old school and a sense of nostalgia. Seeing this juxtaposed with the more informative thematic panels worked very well. Walking around this level, you are pretty much free to go where you like and explore in your own time. I wandered around and stopped when something caught my eye so I could learn more. I really enjoyed the temporary exhibition on herbs and plants that were and are used for medicinal purposes but can also pretty easily kill you. Some of these plants linked to the Benjamin Rush Garden mentioned above so it was a great way to incorporate this into the display.

The ground level is quite similar. The one difference being there are display cases in the centre of the room containing some highlight objects. My absolute favourite display was on the ground level and was simply a series of drawers filled with objects people had accidentally swallowed. I remembered a case study of a man in England who swallowed a coin and ended up dying from a gangrenous lung. So it’s for the best that these objects were retrieved and not left inside.

Another thing I thought worked really well with the layout was dispersig the wet specimens and combining them with old teaching models. It made the display feel less like ‘here is a bunch of human remains for your amusement’ and more like how the objects were intended to be used – as teaching tools. You were able to see the model and then see a specimen as a point of comparison.

One thing that I was happy to read following our visit is that the object labels are slowly being replaced to meet museum standards. We found that many were difficult to read or weren’t positioned anywhere near the object.

Overall the layout suited the objects on display and the aim of the museum to further educate. I think once the displays have been rennovated and refreshed, the museum will be able to communicate a much stronger message on health and disease. The temporary display was so exciting to see as the museum is clearly starting to engage with other disciplines and look at the culture surrounding health.

 

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