The Mutter Museum [Review]

The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

by Gretchen Worden Blast Books, 2002

It’s getting close to Halloween, and thus the time for creepy thrills.

You can find them at the Mutter Museum in the city of Philadelphia. The Mutter Museum was the brainchild of physician and educator Dr. Thomas Mutter. He left money in his will for its founding in order to share his extensive collection of artwork with other medical practitioners. Over the years the College of Physicians, the medical society that maintained it, continued to add, amassing in time an astounding collection of the gross and phenomenal: wax anatomy mannequins, early photographs of diseases and tumors, shrunken heads, and specimens of everything from human skulls to fetuses. All are arranged and displayed in the manner of a Victorian “Cabinet of Curiosities,” the forerunner of today’s natural history museums. For many years it was closed to the general public and visits were accepted only by special request. But curator Gretchen Worden changed all that. She brought the museum into the public sphere in the 1990s, opening it up to general admission and turning it into a more highbrow version of the Jim Rose Circus, which was also popular at the time.

This book was commissioned to highlight the museum’s collections. It’s a coffee table style publication in which photographers were invited to chronicle the displays each in their own style. They make the grotesque seem, if not exactly beautiful, aesthetic.

The foreword gives the history of the museum’s founding and the stories behind some of its star exhibits, like Chang and Eng’s conjoined liver. It’s worthwhile to read for that alone. My favorite pictures tended to be the most conventional, though I have a weakness for gelatin prints. My only criticism is that William Wegman’s Weirmaraner dogs, looking out dolefully between human bones, sort of broke the spell. The museum is a place of the dead, and though humor and social commentary can certainly be read into the history of medicine presented the decades, I’m not sure living creatures belong there.

If you can’t visit the museum in person, pay a visit to the Mutter website, where you can find rotating online exhibits and videos as well as an online gift shop where you can buy lovable stuffed versions of E. Coli, Malaria, and the HPV virus. .

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