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The Mütter Museum

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The College of Physicians / A Victorian medical museum in Philadelphia.

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      19.10.2010 13:18
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      A fascinating insight into the world of Victorian diseases and medical mindset

      For every interest; for every hobby, there is a museum. There is a lawnmower museum, a penis museum (I kid you not), a museum of bad art, along with the more mainstream art, natural history and science museums. Many museums include interactive displays - buttons to push, levers to turn. Some, however, have remained resolutely Victorian. The displays are in dimly lit rooms, and in cases of mahogany and glass. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia can safely be called both Victorian and quirky, yet is still educational, in a slightly morbid way.

      The name of the museum, though pronounced 'mooter' as in the German for mother, has little to do with either German or mothers. Instead, it was created in 1858 by Thomas Dent Mütter, retired Professor of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College (thank you to both the brochure and http://www.collphyphil.org/mutter_hist.htm for this background information). He donated his vast collection of specimens to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. And what a collection it is. You may gather that the Mütter Museum is a Victorian medical museum. It therefore has a whole case of skulls (complete with descriptions of the race, age, nationality and cause of death, where known, of their previous owners), dead babies in jars, skeletons with various deformities - everything you might expect from a Victorian freak show of the dead. But the fascination goes beyond that.

      The museum is within walking distance from Suburban Station (one of three main rail stations in Philadelphia - unusually, all trains seem to go through all three stations), at 19 South 22nd Street. It is not a large museum, and it shares its premises with the College of Physicians, so only takes up a small portion of the rather stately building. Upon entering the rather grand foyer, you pay your money ($14 a person), you must check any bags (including rucksacks), and you are told photography is strictly prohibited inside the museum (though you can photograph the foyer). Heading towards the back, past the grand staircase, you'll see a little entrance - that's where you need to go.

      The museum itself is split into two levels, though the upper level is little more than a large balcony. You enter the top level, where you will find the aforementioned skulls. You'll also see a display of bones and wax models demonstrating the scourge that was syphilis (that's seriously gross), and further wax models showing various skin diseases. Up here too is the (somewhat) famous 'soap woman' - a body of a woman who died in the 19th century. Her body, due to a unique combination of circumstances turned into a substance closely resembling soap. This substance is apparently called adopocere. You will also learn of the dangers of tight corseting - there is a skeleton of a woman who virtually lost her ribcage due to overtight lacing of her corsets.

      Moving downstairs, the first two things you'll probably notice are the plaster casts of the conjoined twins that gave the condition the name Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. There is also a large case containing three complete skeletons - one of a normal man, one of a 'dwarf' woman, and one of a 'giant' man. The cases are arranged both along the walls and in the centre of the room, so whilst the museum isn't huge, you could spend a happy, if gruesome couple of hours in there, especially if you investigate the drawers (which you may open) of stuff that has been removed from people's stomachs, digestive tracts and tracheas (and pretty much anywhere else you can get buttons, pins and the like stuck). It is also down here you'll find the foetuses in jars (most of which are terribly abnormal with hideous malformations). If that's a bit too morbid for you, you can marvel at the intestine of the chap who died essentially of constipation. It is, as you can imagine, very large and distended.

      I've given you a rough overview of what you might find, and the website has a virtual tour with some excellent descriptions of many of the exhibits, with far more detail than I have, or even could, give here. I have been to the museum twice now, once many years ago, and again this year. It is a fascinating place. The museum is laid out, refreshingly, in a Victorian fashion. The curators have wisely avoided turning it into a modern day freak show, leaving it, admittedly, as a Victorian freak show. However, it is worth noting that that is not why the museum was created. It was a learning tool in the days when medical students did not routinely dissect human bodies. These were, apparently, at that time in the US, rather hard to come by. Students, and even many physicians, didn't often come across a sufficient number of examples of disease pathologies to necessarily recognise all the symptoms of a complaint such as TB or syphilis each time a patient presented. Therefore, such establishments were invaluable to the increasingly sophisticated science of medicine. This peek in to this history is perhaps the best reason to visit the Mütter Museum. Not only can you goggle at the specimens, but you will leave with a greater understanding of the history of medicine and the diseases we rarely see now but were a part of Victorian life.

      The museum isn't perfect. It is quite compact but they cram so much into many of the displays that the signage is often quite basic and poor. They try to make up for this with an audio option; however, this is available through your mobile phone. You are given a number to call, which would, I imagine, talk you through what you are looking at. As I was visiting from the UK with a UK mobile phone, I declined to spend a small fortune on this. Some signs are there, but some are located either very high up or low down, or are blocked by the frames of the cases (remember, these are Victorian cases so don't have the single expanse of glass you see nowadays) that they are nearly illegible.

      The museum is expensive for its size. I do realise, though, that such a museum must take a fair amount of maintenance, and you do hope that your money is going to a good cause, attached to the Philadelphia College of Physicians.

      The Mütter Museum is not for the squeamish, and I probably wouldn't take very young children there. If you have an interest in science, medicine and indeed the past, though, you will find it an entertaining and educational couple of hours. It's not a place I'd visit every time I went to Philadelphia, but I'd certainly recommend it as a quirky diversion, with more education value than simply running up the Rocky steps (especially if you don't bother to visit the art museum once you'd achieved the top).

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