Mütter Museum

  - darkometer rating:  5 -
One of the world's most significant collections of specimens, wax models, skeletons, etc. on public display in the USA and indeed the world. It's a Mecca for the icky-medical tourist! And a must-see when in Philadelphia!  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 and is one of the oldest medical organizations in the USA. In 1858, one Thomas Dent Mütter donated his collection of specimens to the College – the beginning of the eponymous Mütter Museum. Since then, its collection has grown to some 20,000 objects – though only about a tenth of them are on public display.
The current building housing the museum dates back to 1909, and in 1986 it underwent extensive renovation (including the installation of air-conditioning in the museum).
The College's complex also houses other branches, in particular the acclaimed Historical Library, one of the best collections in the history of medicine.
It's not all about history, though. The College also engages in quite contemporary public health initiatives and education programmes.
For the dark tourist, however, it is the Mütter Museum that forms the special attraction of this place. Apart from a number of unique items in the collection (see below), it is also the breadth of coverage that is impressive. In that sense it may be the best exhibition of its kind. On the other hand, certain subtypes of exhibits can be found in better execution and larger numbers elsewhere (especially anatomical wax models – see the Josephinum in Vienna).
On the facade of the Mütter Museum a large poster reads "disturbingly informative" (and skulls as background illustration underscore the first part of this assertion). But it's not primarily there to shock, originally at least it was all educational, although the "disturbing" element will always have played a certain role too, especially in making the collection a public museum. Still, medical professionals continue to account for a sizeable proportion of the visitor numbers. In recent years the number of non-medical-expert visitors has however gone up significantly, partly thanks to the efforts of former museum director Gretchen Worden (who died in 2004 – and is now remembered through an added gallery in her honour).
In any case, for the dark tourist (of this special ilk) the Mütter Museum is definitely a must-see when in Philadelphia.
Note that the atmosphere in this museum is quite reverential and respectful (even if some of the displays are arguably not), and not at all sensationalist. This should also guide visitors' behaviour here. Shuffle through in silence; conversations should preferably be limited to whispering.
What there is to see: quite a lot. Once you're past the ticket office at the entrance of the Collage building (where you part with your dollars and are admonished about the museum's strict no-photography policy) you make your way through the grand foyer to the museum proper. This is centred around a fine galleried space on two levels, lined by classy 19th century glass and polished redwood display cabinets full of skulls, skeletons, specimens in jars, wax models, and so forth.
Visits typically start at the upper level gallery and adjacent back rooms before moving downstairs, but in theory you are free to follow whatever order you wish.
There's too much to see to describe it all in detail, so only a number of particular highlights shall be picked out here:
Possibly the most bizarre item is the so-called "Soap Lady" – the body of a woman who sometime in the first half of the 19th century was buried in soil of a chemical composition that had the effect of turning her body fats into adipocere, a waxy substance similar in texture to lye soap. An X-ray shows a cross section of the body and a text panel outlines her story. But it is the bluish-greenish head with its hollow facial "expression" (as if silently screaming) that is the most haunting aspect here …
A grotesque exhibit of a different nature is the "Giant Colon" removed from a 29-year-old man after his death. A photo of the man with his gigantic balloon of a belly is also illustrative. He hadn't been to the toilet for an unbelievably long time. I can't remember the figures, but the weight of the enlarged, over-stuffed colon must have been enormous. This man really was literally full of shit! His condition was later described as "Hirschsprung's disease", for those of you who want to follow this up further.   
Quite well-known is also the wax model of a particularly impressive "Human Horn" – a growth from the forehead that to me looked more like an over-ripe brown banana dangling down over one cheek. (Others with a more vivid and more "indecent" imagination may be reminded of a more human (male) dangling bit …)
Less graphic but historically significant are President Grover Cleveland's secretly removed cancer and Abe Lincoln's murderer's thorax. Also on display are various other murderers' skulls, and also some of the victims' skulls. Civil War and World War One damage is amply illustrated through displays too.
What I found even more captivating (if that particular adjective is permissible here) was the collection of genuine shrink-heads from Peru (on the upper floor in a back room). There was even one of a sloth's head! The tiny human heads, though, were the truly disturbing bits. To this day I have never quite understood how it's done …
An exceptionally spooky specimen was also that of a whole dead child, "dried" for preservation, and mounted in a posture that to me looked uncannily like a crucifixion! Probably no intentional symbolism, but still … eerie.
On a lighter note: documented too is the case of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-mute person to be taught how to read and write – thus giving her the chance to reveal her great intelligence and talent, which would otherwise have been silently confined to her brain or would perhaps not even have come fully alive in the first place. This remarkable brain is also on display itself – albeit merely in the form of a plaster cast. Charles Dickens is said to have visited Laura and reported about the encounter in his "American Notes".
Very touching too are the stories of various conjoined twins, past and present, and the history of their different treatment through the ages (e.g. at times as "monstrous" circus "attractions").
The most prominent exhibits in this section are the plaster-cast of the original "Siamese" twins Chang and Eng's torsos showing the band of cartilage and skin that conjoined them. Their autopsy was actually carried out here at the College. And the museum was able to keep their connected livers, preserved as another unique specimen on display.  
There are also specimens of dead conjoined babies floating in formaldehyde, as well as the odd anencephalic or cyclops – all particularly gory. As are the wax models of eye diseases – or that of a cocktail stick piercing an eye (ouch!).  
More impressive by relative sizes alone are the skeletons of a midget and a giant (the tallest skeleton in America!), as well as that of an individual suffering from hydrocephalus. There's a whole wall-length display cabinet full of skulls (139 skulls from Central and Eastern Europe, to be precise, purchased from one Professor Joseph Hyrtl of Vienna).
Skulls with all the brain still inside them are also on display – ready-sliced, so you can see the various cerebral sections. It makes you fish for your Ibuprofen  …
One particular sliced-head exhibit I found especially haunting: a face without the rest of the head – just the face suspended in a glass display case (reminded me of a certain episode of "Doctor Who" …). Seen from the front, the face looks at you almost benignly, if you look at it from the back, you basically look through the face's removed/empty skull and out through the eyes (you can't actually look through though – the eyelids are closed). Very creepy indeed!
In recent times the medical exhibition proper has been augmented by an art collection room. When I visited in April 2010 I found some of pieces of a very "bodily" nature quite intriguing … the special exhibition was entitled "Corporeal Manifestations"!
Finally, at the exit from the exhibition there's also a shop with plenty of highly unusual souvenirs – such as fluffy toys in the shape of E.Coli and other microbes!  
Location: on the western edges of downtown Philadelphia on the corner of Ludlow Street and South 22nd Street. Street address: 19 S 22nd  St, Philadelphia, PA, 19103.
Google maps locator:[39.9533,-75.1767]
Access and costs: easy to get to; a bit pricey.
Details: from the centre of downtown Philadelphia, it's walkable. City Hall is seven bocks away, roughly three quarters of a mile (1.2 km). The train station at 30th Street is only five minutes' walk away. The nearest metro and trolley stop is 22nd Street, only a block to the north. Various buses also stop in the immediate vicinity. For those who cannot leave their cars behind, there's metered parking on the streets around the Collage as well as commercial parking lots off Market Street, Ludlow Street and Chestnut Street nearby.
Opening hours: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: 15 USD (students 10 USD and senior citizens 13 USD). For the States this may be a mid-price level, but compared to similar institutions e.g. in Vienna it appears rather expensive.
Strictly no photography allowed (this is policed by museum staff who keep an eye on visitors – but to make up for it you can buy picture material at the museum shop).  
Time required: between 45 minutes to well over three hours, depending on the depth of your medical interest. I spent a bit under two hours here.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Not exactly round the corner, but a pleasant walk of a good two miles (2.5 km) north along 22nd Street is the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary prison museum. Roughly halfway, the Rodin Museum with its "Gates of Hell" (see Philadelphia) at Ben Franklin Parkway makes for a cool stop along the way.  

Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Philadelphia.
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  • Mutter Museum 4 - advertising the real DT attractionMutter Museum 4 - advertising the real DT attraction
  • Mutter Museum 5 - adjacent herb gardenMutter Museum 5 - adjacent herb garden
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