The marvelously macabre Mütter Museum

Gross anatomy: At Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, science and the surreal combine for unforgettable experience

April 15, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

Pathologies are my thing. Twisted limbs. Fleshy protrusions. Faces swathed in nappy hair, Chewbacca-like. Conjoined twins. Horns curling from foreheads. Extra heads — those are always fun.

I don’t revel in the maladies of others; I revel in the Other. People are fascinating. People are more fascinating with three legs.

This foible of mine, this adorable morbidity, came early on, delighting my parents, who stood back, weighed adoption strategies and ever so gingerly catered to my wiggier curiosities. For my eighth birthday I requested and received the illustrated book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities.” Since then, many have believed I belong in this book.

These outré fascinations have grown to include death and the dead, and have led me to abnormal forays in my frequent travels. There I was at the Royal London Hospital, sleuthing with the grace and aptitude of Inspector Clouseau for the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. (Mission: failed.) At the Golders Green Crematorium in London I witnessed roaring ovens and jars of fresh ashes, some heartbreakingly labeled “baby.”

There was the blech-fest of the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where all squirm and squiggle of microbe-y monster were displayed in clear, fluid-filled cases, sometimes feasting on animal innards.

At the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok, medical students dissecting cadavers giggled when they saw me spying in the doorway, pointing my camera. I repaired upstairs to the musty exhibit of bottled fetuses, crumbling bones and full-length cadavers floating in dishwater liquid like humongous pickles.

My two noble efforts to see the freak show at Coney Island were thwarted by poor timing. Yanking on the bearded lady’s follicular abundance will have to wait.

Yet, for a constant traveler of my tastes and temperament, the Taj Mahal of the morbid has long been the famed Mütter Museum, a repository of anatomical horrors and shrine to primitive, rusty-tooled medicine in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is where, at last, after years gazing at its Web site, I recently visited. Disappointment was not in the cards.

Part edifying scientific journey, part powerful appetite suppressant, the Mütter is smack in Philly’s city center, a brisk walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inside, once through the deceptively donnish foyer, the museum is cool and musty, packed with old wood and glass cases revealing the historically pertinent — Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit — and the surgically slimy — a mammary tumor afloat in liquid, resembling a buttery dessert.

Human skulls — some intact, some cracked or bullet-pocked — checker an entire wall, each tagged with the cause of death, be it hanging, suicide or disease. The brownish heads came to the Mütter from Central and Eastern Europe in 1874, a major acquisition for the medical institute, which boasts 62,000 visitors a year, many of them children on school field trips. (I want to go to their school.)

Founded in 1849 and named 10 years later for surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum throws open in graphic, natural detail the ranging possibilities of the human body, and the havoc that can befall it from within and without. Diseases, injuries, birth defects — it’s an elaborate temple to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Much of it is not pretty. This is a given. It can be ghastly, grisly, unimaginable. (The “wet specimens” section is home to a jar labeled “Moist Gangrene of the Hand.” In it sits a human hand rotted black, the skin tattered like a torn leather glove, bones poking from the wrist.)

But to merely recoil at the exhibits is to shut out a world of contemplation, and to allow an emotional reflex to override a rare opportunity for understanding.

Not that emotions wither in the objective, secular hothouse of science and medicine. We are human, after all. And the museum unpeels the tangible layers of our humanness, down to the bones in many cases.

Strolling the more than 3,500 square feet of tidy halls and floors, I experienced a kaleidoscope of feelings, be it excitement or queasiness or, in the presence of deformed human fetuses, such as the child with “46 twists in the umbilical cord,” great sadness at life so cruelly muffled before it even whimpered.

The upward of 1,700 sticky specimens — a sliver of John Wilkes Booth’s thorax; a full skeleton encrusted in its owner’s ossified sinew and organs — and 20,000 objects — an archaic penile syringe, leech jar and bleeding bowl — demand gawkers to question our flesh-and-blood frailty and peer across the accepted borders of what constitutes normalcy. Some guests will ponder God’s inscrutable will and the crap-shoot of birth; others might mull our fleshly finiteness, staring at them at every turn, and thank their lucky stars.

“The museum challenges visitors in a way that few American museums do,” says Dick Levinson, Mütter spokesman. “It’s impossible to visit here without confronting issues of sickness, mortality and human sexuality. We’re the museum young people love because we don’t preach, we don’t sugarcoat and we have no agenda except for allowing the voice of science to speak.”

That voice speaks loudly, but with fitting respect and as much dignity as a naked cadaver can possess. There’s humor in the macabre, as horror movies show, so a giggle of shock or a throwaway quip (“Hey, Tom, that skull has your cheekbones”) won’t ruffle the contemplative oxygen of the galleries. It eases the mood. Remember, school kids come here. By now, them bones and body parts understand the various responses of the living to the so forthrightly dead.

Some of us get giddier than others at such places. I was most thrilled that the autopsy of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, was performed at the Mütter in the 1870s, and that the museum kept some nifty souvenirs for display. I examined the plaster cast of the twins’ bound torsos and, below it, their connected liver, a chalky, scabby island bobbing in a pan of fluid.

That’s an island this world traveler and seeker of the strange calls one thing: paradise.

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Filed under Essay, Events, Oddity, Travel

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