Despite the wood and glass, the faint smell of formaldehyde was everywhere. The scent evocative of high school biology class was unavoidable while peering into the cabinets containing thousands of bits of the long-dead.
And yet for me, the strangest aspect of this macabre place was that I was quite excited to be there.
I had found my way to the Mϋtter Museum, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s medical museum. Removed from Philadelphia’s Museum Mile, which stars the monumental Museum of Art, Barnes Foundation, and Franklin Institute, the Mϋtter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia has become something of a case study and pilgrimage stop for museum people. The museum is regarded as a paradigm for period museums, having retained its 19th-century character but brought into the current age with excellent “interpretation” — also known as “labels” to those outside the field.
Established in 1863, the museum is largely the collection of its namesake, Dr. Thomas Dent Mϋtter (1811-1859). Dr. Mϋtter amassed 1,700 objects during his career to assist with his teachings at Jefferson Medical College. Before his death, Mϋtter made arrangements to establish the museum and gave a bequest of $30,000 which was used to expand the collection.
Though there have been recent acquisitions and small temporary exhibitions, the museum has remained basically unchanged since the turn of the 20th century. This makes it a fascinating place to study and visit, particularly considering the changes that have been made.
The museum is fairly small but the cabinets that line the space are packed with both specimens and information. The entrance to the exhibition places visitors on a balcony which contains some glass-fronted cabinets. The majority of the specimens are on the lower level, down a creaky staircase which leads to two more rooms. Standing on the balcony, you can see most of the subterranean space, but it is not until you are close and staring can you tell you’re face to face with a desiccated foot or a wax model displaying the physical symptoms of syphilis.
For, it should be noted, a great number of the specimens are from real human beings, and most are a bit unpleasant. What makes the museum so noteworthy for museum professionals, however, is not simply the display of the disturbing, but the recently-implemented labels that contextualize the museum’s specimens, history, and display.
I have a great appreciation for skilled museum labels which, at their best, not only tell a story, but incite further curiosity. There is an undeniable mix of “voices” — tones, eras, and authors — in the labels’ text, but the newest labels successfully tell stories of the museum, its specimens, and the medical field in general. Many also anticipate visitors’ questions and uncertainties, addressing them directly with“whys” and“hows” that are conversational and witty. Among my favorites was an excellent hook within a label for a curved human horn — “Human and horns share a twisted history” — and a “Harry Potter” reference for mandrake.
Labels such as these are crucial in historic museums like the Mϋtter, which have not changed since earlier times. Interpretation has the power to give history and humanity to a collection, which was formed and displayed under very different circumstances, ideologies, and ethical standards than today’s.
The museum’s Hyrtl Skull Collection, for example, is a staggering display of 139 skulls. While Joseph Hyrtl collected these specimens to debunk phrenology — racist pseudoscience that claimed superiority or inferiority based on the shape of the skull — he still employed methods that would never be considered ethical today. Among the owners of the skulls Hyrtl collected are many of 19th-century’s “undesirables” — criminals, gypsies, suicides, and “imbeciles.” These people were at a societal disadvantage and likely had their skulls taken quite unwittingly or -willingly.
Other specimens in the museum’s collection also seem to have similar sources. Although I think many will recognize the unconscionable nature of such collecting methods, I found that I wanted more explicit explanations, or details on how the specimens found their way to the museum. My only additional critique of the labels is that some are difficult to read because of the amount of text and their placement behind the cabinets’ paned glass.
My criticisms are few, however. The Mϋtter Museum is definitely worth the pilgrimage, though perhaps not too soon after lunch.
Mϋtter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Where: 19 S. 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103; muttermuseum.org
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Details: No photography is allowed. Quarter-operated lockers are available for coats and reasonably-sized bags. There is a small gift shop with related books and merchandise.