Walking down 22nd Street in Center City, it is easy to overlook the Mütter Museum. Mixed in with the impressive architecture of the area, the building appears humble and understated, with only a few signs and displays hinting at what might be inside. Though thousands of people walk and drive past this building daily, many have absolutely no idea what bizarre and fascinating treasures lie within. A collection of human skulls, the liver of a pair of conjoined twins, the skeleton of an actual giant, organs in jars, pieces of Einstein’s brain, these are just a few of the items within the Mütter Museum’s unassuming walls. Though it is hidden in plain sight, this museum begs you to uncover the spectacles within and take part in an experience like no other.
Upon entering the Mütter Museum, you are automatically met with an intense and unfamiliar energy, as if the building and items within are somehow communicating their own power and significance. I was grappling with this surreal feeling while lingering in the lobby area when I was greeted by Anna Dhody, Curator of the Mütter Museum. After exchanging pleasantries, she quickly led me down a flight of steps, through a hallway covered in medical posters, past a giant iron lung and into her ramshackle office space. After greeting one of her staff members and checking up on him as he sorted a box of poison, we began our discussion and I received a thorough education on everything that the museum has to offer.
First, I just had to ask Anna exactly how she became the curator of a museum that collects such eccentric items. She explained that, as a Philly native, she loved visiting the museum from a very young age and eventually began dragging her high school friends with her as she grew up. Her interest in museums and science lead her to study archaeology and forensics. Her educational and employment pursuits took her to Boston, Washington D.C., Belize and Peru. Throughout her travels and various research projects, she discovered her deep interest in human remains and physical anthropology. While she was looking for an opportunity to utilize her newfound interest and expertise, she took a temporary position at the Mütter Museum. Apparently, that temporary position was a perfect fit and, years later, Anna is still with the Mütter Museum doing the work she loves every day.
Shortly into our interview, my enthusiasm got the best of me and I began bombarding Anna with questions about the museum’s contents and her job as curator. She was more than happy to answer, unable to hold back her intense passion for her career. Anna explained her role as the “steward for the museum’s tangible collection” and her responsibility for all of the instruments, wax models, plaster casts and human remains within the collection. She gleefully filled me in on their “friends and family program,” stating that employees and their family members often make biological donations to the museum, revealing that her husband’s gallbladder and her very own kidney stones are part of the collection. She jokingly added, “We put a lot of ourselves into this museum, our hearts, souls, gallbladders and kidney stones!”
While Anna has no problem acknowledging the obscure and zany nature of her position, she made a point to address the serious aspects of her work as well as the rich history and educational potential of the museum. She explained that while many museums consider their collections complete, The Mütter Museum is constantly in search of new items of interest. She reflected on the stringent process of analyzing human remains before accepting them and the odd challenges she faces, such as her recent struggle of shipping a recently donated, double uterus from California to Philadelphia. Anna has dedicated herself to focusing on 21st century health concerns and is currently working on collecting items that reflect these issues. While she is completely aware that many people view the museum as a display of oddities and abnormalities, she is convinced that, due to the museums careful design, every guest will leave with some newly acquired knowledge.
The Mütter Museum staff works very hard to display their collection with honor and take great pride in perfecting their exhibits. Although the museum is small in size, it is densely packed, with an impressive 10 percent of their collection on display. Anna confessed that her favorite exhibit is one that she designed with the help of UPENN folklorist, Linda J. Lee, in order to bring the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales to life. The “Grimm’s Anatomy” exhibit highlights the aspects of medicine and the human body in the famous tales, pairing specific stories with real specimens in order to blend fantasy and reality.
Another museum highlight is the “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits” exhibit, which details aspects of medical care throughout the Civil War and even allows visitors to have their arm amputated by a simulated program. As you can imagine, once Anna got on the subject of the museum displays, she was on a roll, boasting about their possession of one of the world’s largest human colons, recalling the history behind the Hyrtl Skull Collection, raving over the high quality wax models and detailing the significance of Harry Eastlack’s skeleton. She ended by urging everyone to visit their newest “Vesalius on the Verge” exhibit and exclaiming, “There is so much to see!”
The Mütter Museum, as you might expect, has a colorful origin story. The Museum sprang forth as part of the prestigious, Philly-based College of Physicians. This organization formed in 1787 as a common ground for medical professionals to exchange ideas and technology in a neutral, competition-free setting, in order to help the medical community thrive. The COP is still active today and often serves as a powerful, unified voice of doctors. College of Physicians member, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, willed his teaching collection and funds to build a museum to house it after finding himself in ill health. Tragically, Dr. Mütter did not survive to see the museum open. The College of Physicians has dutifully kept his dream alive by continually adding to his collection which has surpassed 35,000 items at this point.
In accordance with the museum’s mission to “engender curiosity and knowledge about the body and health,” Mütter Museum employees love providing people with the opportunity to see items that they may not find elsewhere and helping to answer questions about their own anatomy. Anna strives to communicate the story behind each item in order to add to the informative and educational aspect of the museum, going beyond shock appeal. In the future they hope to add a new, interactive audio tour, increase their social media outreach and continue broadcasting programs on their YouTube channel. They are grateful to, as Anna puts it, “showcase the human condition in a manner that you can’t see elsewhere” and work with the endless supply of medical and research resources within Philadelphia.
At the conclusion of our interview, Anna rushed me through a string of offices and storage spaces, past several busy interns and employees, through what she called a “secret door” and into the heart of the Mütter museum where I was confronted by jars, vials, slides and remains in a darkened and silent atmosphere. She showed me around, introducing me to Harry Eastlack, the Mütter Giant and conjoined twins, Chang and Eng. As she explained each exhibit, I was overcome once again by the unfamiliar energy I had encountered earlier, afraid to raise my voice above a whisper and being mindful to step very softly, humbled by the relics before me. After Anna and I said our goodbyes, I found myself alone and unnerved, yet anxious to explore. As I made my way out of the museum’s depths, taking in all of the information and displays, I wondered how the building managed to radiate this distinguishable energy and how inanimate objects could command such a high degree of respect.
Written by Patrick Kaisinger (Mike McCann Team Blogger Extraordinaire)