Allow Us to View the “Artifacts of Human Suffering” That Enable Us to “Appreciate the Epic Achievements of Medicine”

(p. D1) The Mütter Museum, a 19th-century repository of medical oddments and arcana at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, attracts as many as 160,000 visitors a year. Among the anatomical and pathological specimens exhibited are skulls corroded by syphilis; spines twisted by rickets; skeletons deformed by corsets; microcephalic fetuses; a two-headed baby; a bound foot from China; an ovarian cyst the size of a Jack Russell terrier; Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor; the liver that joined the original “Siamese twins,” Cheng and Eng Bunker; and the pickled corpse of the Soap Lady, whose fatty tissues decomposed into a congealed asphalt-colored substance called adipocere.

. . .

The celebrity magician Teller, a Philadelphia native, called the Mütter a place of electrifying frankness. “We are permitted to (p. D5) confront real, not simulated, artifacts of human suffering, and are, at a gut level, able to appreciate the epic achievements of medicine,” he said.

But, like museums everywhere, the Mütter is reassessing what it has and why it has it. Recently, the institution enlisted a public-relations consultant with expertise in crisis management to contain criticism from within and without.

The problems began in February [2023] when devoted fans of the Mütter’s website and YouTube channel noticed that all but 12 of the museum’s 450 or so images and videos had been removed.

. . .

Ms. Quinn had tasked 13 unnamed people — medical historians, bioethicists, disability advocates, members of the community — with providing feedback on the digital collection. “Folks from a wide background,” Ms. Quinn said in an interview.

. . .

Blowback to Ms. Quinn’s ethical review was ferocious. An online petition garnered the signatures of nearly 33,000 Mütter enthusiasts who insisted that they loved the museum and its websites as they were. The petition criticized Ms. Quinn and her boss, Dr. Mira Irons, the president and chief executive of the College of Physicians, for decisions predicated on “outright disdain of the museum.” The complaint called for the reinstatement of all web content and urged the college’s board of trustees to fire the two women immediately. (To date, about one-quarter of the videos have been reinstated.)

Moreover, in June [2023], The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece entitled “Cancel Culture Comes for Philly’s Weirdest Museum,” in which Stanley Goldfarb, a former director of the college, wrote that the museum’s new “woke leaders” appeared eager to cleanse the institution of anything uncomfortable. Robert Hicks, director of the Mütter from 2008 to 2019, voiced similar sentiments this spring when he quit as a museum consultant. His embittered resignation letter, which he released to the press, stated that Dr. Irons “has said before staff that she ‘can’t stand to walk through the museum,’” and it advised the trustees to investigate her and Ms. Quinn, both of whom Dr. Hicks believed held “elitist and exclusionary” views of the Mütter.

. . .

Dr. Hicks remains unhappy with the new perspective. “Dr. Mütter would have been confused at the dictum that the museum should be about health, not death,” he lamented in his resignation letter. “The principle emblazoned at the entrance of many anatomy theaters, ‘This is where the dead serve the living,’ is readily understood by museum visitors without special guidance by Dr. Irons.”

For the full story, see:

Franz Lidz. “Should a Hall of Human Curiosities Dial It Down?” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 15, 2023): D1 & D5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed years, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 13, 2023, and has the title “A Museum of ‘Electrifying Frankness’ Weighs Dialing It Down.”)

For more on the innovative surgeon who founded the Mütter Museum, see:

Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.

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