A Strange Museum Takes a Strange Turn

Attempts to limit access to the Mütter Museum’s collection of medical oddities disrespect the living and the dead.


Philadelphia has some of the strangest museums in the country. There is a Dental Museum with buckets of teeth, a museum dedicated to insects, and Pizza Brain, featuring…pizza. But the strangest collection must be the Mütter Museum.

Part of the College of Physicians, the museum houses a vast store of medical oddities dating back to the 1850s. Although not large, the two-story institution houses hundreds of specimens and maintains a 19th century feel. Visitors can see part of Albert Einstein's brain, tumors removed from American presidents, and the death cast of the "Siamese twins" Chang and Eng Bunker, who died in 1874. The collection of skulls and diseased body parts defies description. One of my favorite exhibits is a large set of drawers filled with bizarre objects that people have swallowed (including, as I recall, a cast metal toy ship).

As much as I loved the Mütter, I have been careful to bring only visitors I thought would enjoy it. Some people prefer to keep their distance from a display of a 9-foot human colon. 

Some people think we should all keep our distance from certain exhibits. The Philly Voice thinks it may be unethical to display human remains without the consent of the dead, even if the death occurred over a hundred years ago. The Philadelphia Inquirer and ProPublica have urged the museum to return roughly 50 American Indian remains to their respective tribes. Mother Jones has equated displays like those at the Mütter as examples of "grave robbing."

These complaints appear to have stung Kate Quinn, executive director of the museum, and Mira Irons, CEO of the College of Physicians. Quinn has removed almost all of the museum's popular and informative YouTube videos, which often featured in-depth discussion of the many examples of diseases and medical anomalies in the museum's collections. The videos had 13.5 million views, according to Stanley Goldfarb, a prior president of the college. Quinn writes on the museum's website that the removals may be "temporary," depending on the decisions of the inevitable "panel of experts."

Goldfarb, who wrote recently about this sad turn of events in The Wall Street Journal, reports that over a quarter of the Mütter's employees have quit in protest. "As an ex officio member of the College of Physicians Board," he tells Reason, "I see the emails describing the concerns of the staff." One of the museum's largest supporters, former Mütter director Robert Hicks, thinks the changes are "absolutely intolerable," Goldfarb says. "Robert had planned to bequeath his estate to the museum and had now removed them from his will." (Hicks did not immediately respond to request for comment.)

Quinn responded to Goldfarb's Journal article with a letter inviting him to join the review panel. But Goldfarb tells me that Quinn hasn't followed up, and he doubts that the panel will be bringing the content back online.

"Some of the exhibits offend people's sensibilities," Goldfarb adds. "The whole point of these displays is to offend sensibilities, to bring attention to what happened to these people. A lot of people don't get it. I am not offended by the displays, and I don't think most people are either."

Both Goldfarb and a staffer who asked not to be identified worry the endgame will be to close the Mütter collection to the public and let it be available only to physicians. 

The Mütter has fans around the world, including the magician Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, who discussed the museum in their book How to Play in Traffic. "Neither your suffering nor mine, viewed in isolation, does the human race much good," he wrote. "We are valuable to medicine only when we become part of a pattern."

The Mütter is 160 years old, and it is gorgeous. The display cases are all beautifully polished wood and glass. Gleaming old-school brass railings line the galleries. A collection of 139 skulls is especially compelling. Many are accompanied by descriptions that read like short stories, "Simon Juhrer, 19. Linz, Austria. Suicide, Hung himself because of an unhappy love affair." Some just list names and occupations. Fisherman, Sharpshooter, Maidservant, Idiot. A soap lady died of yellow fever in 1874; the fat in her body turned to a material called adipocere, eerily described as "like a semi-hard cheese." 

My favorite is the skeleton of Carol Orzel. Carol suffered from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, where bones grow where they do not belong. Carol worked to raise awareness of this disease, and before she died in April 2018, at the age of 58. she bequeathed her body to the Mütter with one caveat: Her skeleton must always be displayed with the costume jewelry she loved to wear. A glittering tiara and pins of cats and dogs sit on velvet beside her badly deformed bones.

These exhibits not only demonstrate the terrible things that can happen to a human being. They remind us that every one of these remains were once living people, often surviving for years with debilitating diseases that confounded the physicians of their day.

There are things that you might expect to see at the Mütter but will not. When my daughter volunteered there years ago, a box arrived on her desk with a donation that at first confused her. When she realized that she was looking at a shrunken head, she put the box aside as a rejection. The Mütter Museum displays medical anomalies. It is not a sideshow meant to shock.

Irons, the college CEO, has suggested that only physicians know how to view the Mütter's offerings properly. When physicians see the specimens, she told WHYY, "we can contextualize the stories of those patients in our minds as we're going through it. It's kind of natural for us." Apparently, lowly laymen are incapable of such difficult concepts. 

A staffer at the museum told me a story that I cannot stop thinking about. "When people get life-changing diagnoses, sometimes they come here. A man walked in and asked to see the exhibit with metastatic brain tumors. I took him to see it, and he looked at it for a long time. Then he explained that he had been diagnosed with the disease and that he 'wanted to see what I am up against.' I was kind of shocked, but I get it. He didn't want to just read through the stack of print-outs the doctor's office gave him. He wanted to see the disease for himself. He left the museum looking a lot more peaceful than when he entered. I've seen something like this a few times."

That staffer also told me that some displays had been removed from a room off the museum's entrance, and that there were plans to take away an iron lung displayed along with a photo of a crammed polio ward. My grandchildren ran up to the long green steel and glass tube when they entered the museum. The 5-year-old asked what an iron lung was. That day, these kids learned about how this devastating disease was once treated, and how science conquered this terrible illness. 

To remove this collection of irreplaceable history because some people are uncomfortable with the displays is a mistake. These remains were human beings. They lived, loved, laughed, suffered, and died. They have left us a unique collection of information that shows us how they lived and what happened to them, and that reminds us of the fragile lives we all lead.

On Carol Orzel's birthday, the same staffer told me, museum staff gather at her exhibit and remove some of her cherished jewelry and refill the case with other bracelets and pins to be displayed for the new year. "She gave us a suitcase of the stuff, and we can only display a little at a time." They worry they may not be allowed to continue the tradition as leadership tightens up. That would be a shame; this small ritual—of which Quinn says she has no knowledge—demonstrates that the museum's purpose of edifying the public can exist alongside the kind of care and respect that human remains demand.