martes, 20 de julio de 2010

The Muetter Museum: Really Gross Anatomy

While compiling a U.S must-see list, I've come across this gem, the Muetter Museum in Philadelphia.  It's an old brick building on a lovely tree-lined street down town. There is a medicinal herb garden surrounding it that was created in 1797.

It houses a fascinating and disturbing collection of 19th century medical specimens.

Gretchen Worden (1947–2004) remains perhaps the best known person associated with the Mütter Museum. She joined the museum staff as a curatorial assistant in 1975, became the museum's curator in 1982 and its director in 1988.

Worden was a frequent guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, "displaying a mischievous glee as she frightened him with human hairballs and wicked-looking Victorian surgical tools, only to disarm him with her antic laugh" and appeared in numerous PBS, BBC and cable television documentaries (including an episode of Errol Morris' show First Person) as well as NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" on the museum's behalf.

She was also instrumental in the creation of numerous Mütter Museum projects, including the popular Mütter Museum calendars and the book, The Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
During Worden's tenure, the visitorship of the museum grew from several hundred visitors each year to, at the time of her death, more than 60,000 tourists annually.
After her death, the Mütter Museum opened a gallery in her memory. In an article written about the gallery's September 30, 2005 opening, the New York Times described the "Gretchen Worden Room":

“ There are jars of preserved human kidneys and livers, and a man's skull so eaten away by tertiary syphilis that it looks like pounded rock. There are dried severed hands shiny as lacquered wood, showing their veins like leaves; a distended ovary larger than a soccer ball; spines and leg bones so twisted by rickets they're painful just to see; the skeleton of a dwarf who stood 3 feet 6 inches small, next to that of a giant who towered seven and a half feet. And "Jim and Joe," the green-tinted corpse of a two-headed baby, sleeping in a bath of formaldehyde. ”

Although Worden was known for using humor and shock factor to garner interest in the museum, she nonetheless was respectful of museum's artifacts. In the foreword of The Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, she wrote "While these bodies may be ugly, there is a terrifying beauty in the spirits of those forced to endure these afflictions."

Here is a review of the place by Anne D. Bernstien:

"On a recent trip to Philadelphia I had the opportunity to revisit The Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, to see what’s changed since last exploring this mecca of medical oddities and squirm-inducing equipment in 2004.

 Piece of John Wilkes Booth's thorax.The Mütter likes to downplay its freak show side with a sober, respectful and academic presentation of its holdings. There’s dark wooden cabinetry, discreet explanatory cards, understated lighting. But really, when your most popular must-see items include a giant colon, a plaster cast of the torso of Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and a withered waxy “Soap Lady”…who are you kidding?

I’ve always been struck by how many families consider the Mütter to be an acceptable and fun outing for the kiddies.

I know that my own childhood psyche would have been seriously disturbed by the sight of wax models of skin diseases and that ever-haunting display of deformed fetuses floating in jars.

But I have to admit, the kids I saw seemed to be having a grand old time pointing, squealing and making “I’m gonna puke” faces. Maybe the family that goes “yuck” together stays stuck together.

The Mütter justifies our interest in the extreme and gory by putting it in an educational context, giving us permission to indulge our attraction to the entertainingly gruesome.

So what’s new? Well, the “Soap Lady” has lost her prominent placement in the main gallery and has been shuffled off to a side room. She appears to scream in protest (Actually, she’s always looked like that.)

She currently shares the space with an exhibit about Presidential death and a display of shrunken human heads (both real and fake) from the Jivaro Tribe. I would have appreciated more information on the actual process of head-shrinking (a rare occasion where the Mutter staff passed on an opportunity to be deeply disgusting).

Dwarf and giant skeleton.A more spare and brightly-lit back gallery showcases The Mütter’s new nod to artiness. The current exhibit is “Corporeal Manifestations”: a collection of “ceramic figurative work” which explores the “psychology of our biological existence.”

 I’d really prefer that the Mutter abandon attempts at promoting creative expression to make room for more sliced-up body parts and photographs of singing conjoined twins. Anyway, no human hand can possibly top the aesthetic perfection of their existing collection of delicate ossicles and labyrinths of the ear!
The Mütter is a conventional museum in one sense: there’s a gift shop! You can pick up your own copy of their famous calendar, along with T-shirts, books, shot glasses and other reminders of your horrifying visit.

As there is a strict “no photography” policy, a wider array of postcards would be appreciated. The giant colon postcard is the only truly weird one I found in stock.
All in all, The Mütter is our nation’s most perfectly realized medical museum, striking a skillful balance between information and titillation. It’s a wonderfully stimulating reminder of the myriad ways our fleshy incarnations can go horribly, horribly wrong.

May 13, 2010 by Anne D. Bernstein

Sources: 1 2

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