Established by Thomas Dent Mütter with the gift of his private collection in 1856, the museum was originally intended to treat the public to medical rarities to which they would otherwise have had no access. Today the museum's visitation is growing by 3000 visitors a year, and its director and curator, Gretchen Worden, doesn't expect that growth to let up anytime soon. MELVIN's Anton Crane had the privilege of talking to Gretchen about the museum, and this is what she had to say.
What do people see when they walk into the museum? Does the Mütter try for initial shock value or are its techniques more subtle?
We certainly don't try for shock. The first thing a person would see though, besides a beautiful big portrait of Dr. Mütter, would be the Hyrtal Skull Collection: 139 skulls arranged in a cabinet. That's a pretty effective visual impact.
What is the most gawked at exhibit?
It's hard to tell. You know years ago I think the abnormal fetal development; the so-called "babies in bottles." But I think there are just so many interesting things out that I don't hear too much reaction just in that area. I'm just as likely to hear it looking at the mega-colon or the giant skeleton. We don't get a lot of loud reactions other than, "C'mere and look at this!"
What was the most memorable reaction from a visitor to the museum?
The one that I'm fondest of was when I was showing this French physician the museum and he saw the mega-colon, which is a grossly enlarged human colon [measures eight feet circumference and 27 feet long]. It's the size of a horse's or cow's. He looked and he said, "Ooh, la, la!" Many of our specimens are human beings.
What would you consider the museum's most prized exhibit?
They're all prizes, but the single thing I think is most special, because we're the only place in the world where people can see it, is the plaster cast of the bodies of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins.... They died in 1874 down in North Carolina. They had married and between them had 21 children. They were living on two farms.
Oh, isn't it? It's a marvelous story. The question that physicians had always wanted to know was could they have been separated. And the twins themselves had asked doctors this question. They wanted to settle this once and for all and so a commission from the college of Physicians was appointed to go down to North Carolina. They got permission from the families to bring them back to Philadelphia.
They did the autopsy in the Mütter Museum. After it was done, they made the plaster cast, which is the twins about the level of their hips to their heads, just to show the connecting band. So it's a wonderful portrait of two very interesting men. They were in their 63rd year when they died. The autopsy confirmed the medical opinion that it would have been far too risky to separate them while they were alive for fear of infection and shock.
How do the kid's groups react to the museum?
Oh, they're a lot fun. They just pick up on the attitudes of the adults who they're with, to an extent. But they're basically just fascinated with skulls and skeletons and everything. And sometimes the very young ones will look at the babies and ask, how did they get in there? That's always an interesting question. Kids do like this sort of material and it's nice to see human material instead of just dinosaurs.
What was your initial reaction to the museum when you first got there?
It was heaven. I was literally in heaven. Because for a physical anthropologist to be surrounded by this much material, you know, bones...it was absolutely fascinating and just such a rich area to learn in. I knew I wanted to work there. Then I got the job and that was twenty years ago, in January.
What have you done to pass on that initial first time reaction to other new visitors?
We did a renovation in 1986. It used to be just one small storage area and everything was out. It was just shelf upon shelf of specimen bottles, bones and instruments. It was just absolutely wonderful. You could spend the entire day standing over one case, reading all the labels. There were a lot of duplicate bone specimens on exhibit in displays and we started reducing the number of specimens. We went through the renovation which resulted in the museum looking absolutely beautiful and elegant. But you don't get the same impact I received.
Are people ever bored by the material in the museum?
Anatomy may be a little dull unless you're just gun-ho anatomist, but pathology isn't.... We began as a museum of pathology anatomy and so we do have models and specimens demonstrating anatomy, but the bulk of the collection are pathological. It's more interesting to see something going wrong than something going right. From that point of view our guides don't really get dull.
Plus, so many of our specimens are human beings. They had case histories, they had lives. You get to know the people whose bodies you're seeing there. So it's a very personal thing, it's not just a detached scientific specimen. This is somebody who had this disease, and this is what was left after they died.
I think it's so important to get that sense when you come to the museum. It's very different from any other medical museum because it is collected locally, and so much of the case history is part of the exhibit label. For me, I've gotten to know the patients and the doctors who've operated on them. Even from a hundred years ago, they're all familiar. If you're familiar with their medical history you recognize the names of the people who gave the specimens and...these are actual people. That's a neat part.
How many visitors do you expect this year?
We've been going up by about two or three thousand a year. We counted 17,414 last year. I would expect we'd hit 20,000 this year.
We're a very small museum and a not a large place. Not that we're complaining about 20,000. We could probably handle 25 or 30 thousand I'm sure. But I don't think we'd be able to handle 100 or 200 thousand people a year. How many visitors does the museum get daily? We're open Tuesday through Friday from 10 to 4. And actually when you consider that we're open six hours a day, four days a week the figures are not that bad. Daily it can vary from say 100 or 150 to what we call Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. This year we hit a relatively new record of 453. That's just a ton of people in a relatively small space.
For years, we had some fine arts photographers who would come, and were working in that vein, with natural selections. They took the photos, had the shows and got that sort of benefits out of using the collections. We were happy to work with them. We appreciate the fact that they appreciate our collection aesthetically. We got to thinking how we can get something back from this, and particularly how we can make some money from this. Because that's their intention, to make prints and sell them. Not that they all do that.
When I showed the calendar to people I work with, one of them said, "This is sick! How do you suppose the families of these people feel, knowing that their relative is on public display?" Is that a common reaction to the museum's content?
Hmm, no. "That's sick" (laughs). You know, another word for being sick is having a disease or pathological anatomy. This is what we have and this is why we chose to teach people about this.
As far as how people feel about seeing their families on display. If we were a sideshow, and we were showing dead fetuses or skeletons, I would agree. The family should be appalled. [But] in some cases, the people have given themselves to science.
We have one case of a man whose skeleton began to develop outside the body, so he was completely immobilized. As a matter of fact, he is on the first calendar. But his sister used to come in to see him after his skeleton had become part of the museum. She told me that she'd rather to have seen him like this than she had when he was alive and suffering. There have been cases when we have actually purchased the specimen from the families. We've gotten some acquisitions of congenital abnormalities where- this is the law now- the parents have to sign a release to give permission for their baby to be deposited in the Mütter Museum. In some cases they've asked the attending obstetrician whether or not they'd be able to visit. Although they're more than welcome, none of them have ever done that.
Have you noticed more open-mindedness or narrow mindedness among the observers as the years have gone by?
I don't know. There must be more acceptance because I don't hear...but then again I'm not out there with the visitors. So I don't hear all the "Icks" and "Ooos." I think people know more about the museum, so they're more prepared when they come to it.
A lot of people don't know what to expect so they're a little shocked. And there are also a few people who find that they can't deal with it. You're seeing real human material and sometime it's a little too powerful. Occasionally people will come in a group and someone from the group will want to sit down. But basically, people come there because they want to see strange material and they don't get the reactions.
How would you describe the museum and what it represents?
The museum is an opportunity for everyone to come and see what medicine is really about and how it was taught in times past: the nineteenth century in Philadelphia. What was important to the physicians and medical students then. Plus, it's a chance to see things that generally have only been reserved for members of the profession. The kind of material we have would have been typical in any medical school in the 19th century but the general public wasn't invited in. So youčre getting a chance to see a privileged view of medicine.
But that's just part of it. What we also have is a history of instruments. So it's a chance for the doctor, who is not familiar with their own profession, to learn about it first hand. There's nothing like seeing the actual object, particularly to appreciate some of the remarkable pathological conditions. So you're just going to see something you've never seen before, because there are so few collections of this type existing today and there are very few that are accessible to the public.