Mütter Museum in Philadelphia Weighs Dialing Down its ‘Electric Frankness’

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The Mütter Museum, located at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, is a popular attraction that showcases medical oddities and artifacts from the 19th century. With approximately 160,000 visitors each year, the museum features a wide range of anatomical and pathological specimens that captivate the public’s curiosity. These include skulls affected by syphilis, spines deformed by rickets, skeletons distorted by corsets, microcephalic fetuses, a two-headed baby, a bound foot from China, and the preserved body of the Soap Lady, among others.

The museum’s appeal lies in its exhibition of the unusual and extraordinary aspects of biology. Dean Richardson, a professor of equine surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, explains that people are naturally drawn to the bizarre and want to understand the complexities of biology, which can sometimes result in abnormalities or “errors.”

However, like many museums, the Mütter is currently reevaluating its collection and purpose. After the removal of the majority of its images and videos from its website and YouTube channel, the institution faced criticism. To address this, the museum hired a public-relations consultant with expertise in crisis management. The consultant’s role is to manage the criticism and ensure that the museum’s online presence is appropriate and respectful, both in terms of its digital collection and its display of over 6,500 human remains.

The decisions made by the museum’s executive director, Kate Quinn, and the president and chief executive of the College of Physicians, Dr. Mira Irons, have faced backlash from devoted fans. An online petition called for the reinstatement of all web content and the immediate termination of Quinn and Irons. Furthermore, critics, such as former director Robert Hicks, accused the museum’s leadership of wanting to erase uncomfortable aspects of the collection.

Amidst the controversy, the museum has seen employee departures, and rumors have spread on social media regarding the museum’s future plans. These rumors include claims that the museum will become a research-only institution, that certain exhibits featuring malformed fetuses have been removed, and that the museum wants to deter specific groups of visitors.

Dr. Irons denies these rumors and emphasizes her commitment to upholding professional standards and the museum’s mission. She acknowledges the need for productive discussions about the museum’s collection but asserts that the controversy arises from resistance to change rather than a genuine concern for the preservation of the museum’s purpose.

The Mütter Museum, established in 1859 by Thomas Dent Mütter, was initially intended as a teaching tool for aspiring doctors. Over time, the collection expanded through donations and acquisitions, some obtained through questionable practices. The museum opened its doors to the public in 1863 and has since become a popular destination, attracting individuals with a curiosity for the human body and its mysteries.

However, museums displaying human remains face increasing scrutiny and have been forced to reevaluate their practices. Terms such as “mummy” have been deemed dehumanizing, and museums now aim to present preserved bodies in a more respectful and accurate light. Dr. Irons emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the humanity of these specimens and providing a deeper understanding of the individuals they once were.

Ms. Quinn, the museum’s executive director, plans to guide the Mütter back to its original mission by moving away from spectacles and embracing a more respectful approach to its collections. As someone with experience in museum management, she aims to develop an ethics policy and a human-remains policy to ensure the responsible stewardship of the museum’s artifacts.

Ultimately, the Mütter Museum faces the challenge of balancing public interest in the unusual and extraordinary with the need to present its collection ethically and respectfully. By reevaluating its practices and engaging in meaningful discussions, the museum strives to fulfill its mission of helping the public appreciate the history of medical diagnosis and treatment while understanding the human body’s complexities.

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