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 by far must be one of the oldest: the Mutter Museum.
Part of the College of Physicians, the museum houses a vast store of medical oddities dating back to the 1850s. The display cases have a nineteenth-century feel with dark wood paneling and brass fixtures. This is a museum like no other. 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 (139) and diseased parts of the human body defy description. One of my favorite exhibits is a small chest of drawers filled with bizarre objects that people have swallowed, requiring medical attention. (Including, as I recall, a cast metal Monopoly ship).
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Our daughter volunteered at the Mutter, and named a daughter after the museum director, Gretchen Worden, who died in 2002. As much as I loved the Mutter, I was careful to bring visitors I thought would enjoy it. There were plenty of friends and relatives I felt should keep a safe distance from displays of a nine-foot human colon.
Unfortunately, some of the Mutter Museum’s current management appears to feel we should all keep our distance from many of their exhibits. The current executive director, Kate Quinn, and others have reacted to complaints from some media outlets that the exhibits are insensitive. (This may be an unintended understatement).
Complaints that some of the collections are racist and support colonialism appear to have stung Quinn and Dr. Mira Irons, CEO of the College of Physicians. They seem concerned that the exhibits feature dead people who had values that differ from current thinking. I suggest that this statement is rather obvious. Of course, people long ago thought differently. That’s part of the reason we have museums: to learn about our ancestors.
The first reaction from Quinn to address the political sensitives of the complaints was to remove almost all their popular and informative YouTube videos. Quinn explains on the main web page of the museum why visitors are not allowed to view the videos. Quinn acknowledges that museum enthusiasts will be surprised at the censorship but assures us hiding the material might be “temporary” and will be reviewed by the inevitable “panel of experts.”
When science and history become hidden from our view because of current political winds, it ceases to be scientific.
A former president of the College, Dr. Stanley Goldfarb, wrote recently about this sad turn of events in the Wall Street Journal. He points out that over a quarter of the Mutter’s employees have quit in protest. The article reports that Dr. Irons apparently feels the museum should be closed to the public, and available only to physicians (like herself, presumably). A senior consulting scholar, Robert Hicks, resigned and rescinded his plans to leave his estate to the museum.
Fans of the Mutter, like me, love the idea that such a strange and informative museum exists. The Mutter has fans worldwide, including the magician Raymond Teller, of Penn and Teller fame. Some of the exhibits are hard to look at, but all are fascinating. They inform us about what can happen to the human body, and how medicine has learned from diseases and abnormalities.
I believe there is nothing wrong with updating information explaining how society’s sensibilities have changed over the centuries. But to remove this collection of irreplaceable history because some people are uncomfortable with the displays is a mistake.
If Dr. Irons really believes the collection should exist, but that only a select group of people should be allowed to learn from it, is simply discrimination against people she does not approve of.
When science and history become hidden from our view because of current political winds, it ceases to be scientific, but remains historical. Such abhorrent actions add to a long and sad history of censorship because the past makes a few of us uncomfortable.
Stephen Wahrhaftig is a marketer and writer from Chester County, Pennsylvania.