Silences About the Corpses in a Crowded Museum: Processing My Visit to the Mütter

“Disturbingly informative” is the slogan of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This (in)famous museum of medical oddities has been on my to-do list since before I started the blog, and I’m glad I finally visited. However, I ultimately disagreed with the slogan -- while it was fascinating, I didn’t find the museum informative in the ways that I think are most salient to their collection of medical abnormalities. It fell short on acknowledging the complicated, often racist and colonialist history of collecting and displaying human remains, and on exploring the ways in which people whose bodies are abnormal are frequently dehumanized and gawked at in life as well as after death. On these topics, the museum is far too silent. The purpose of the museum is to educate about medical history and the human body, but I didn’t feel more informed, and I didn’t get enough information on the social or medical context of the “oddities” on display. Overall, I appreciated my visit to the museum, but I was also troubled by it. I had heard that Mütter has done a lot of work to acknowledge their complicated heritage, and I was expecting more. It has taken me a while to put my thoughts together on this -- part of me wants to go back to see if I missed things, but living in Boston, it’s not going to happen right away.

There were several things I really liked about the museum. Clearly, I wasn’t alone, as it was quite crowded. The collections are captivating -- I pulled my friends over to see an early surgical sterilizing sprayer. The core of the collection is specimens of highly unusual medical conditions, which I found really interesting, if complicated to look at. The current exhibit, Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits, on Civil War injuries and disease, was quite well done. I appreciated that in that exhibit, the museum tied as much of the story as they could to specific, named individuals, often people they even had photos of. In the main hall in a section on skin cancer, a label described the museum director’s own experiences with melanoma. These elements helped the exhibits feel like they were about people rather than just bodies. On the other end of the spectrum, I really liked the temporary exhibit Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work, which talked a bit about the people who made the intricate flowers, wreaths, and other scenes, but also emphasized the different techniques used, giving more detail than I’d ever seen in a display of hair art.

I knew going into the museum that the history of human specimen collections in museums is rife with ethical issues, and I hoped to see some of that acknowledged in the labels and mitigated by their display choices. Briefly, there have historically been many issues with how the scientific establishment (traditionally, the white scientific establishment) has collected bodies for comparative study and for teaching. For a long time cutting into a dead body was frowned upon in Europe and the U.S. Into the 19th century, criminals who were executed might be sentenced to be dissected in a demonstration for students as part of their criminal sentence. Even longer than that, autopsies were conducted on bodies that had been stolen from their graves; the poor and racial minorities were particularly targeted as their graveyards were less protected. There’s also a long history of medical research disproportionately using the bodies of marginalized people, both in life and after death. I recommend the book Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington for more information. The book makes a couple of leaps that I didn’t quite follow, but overall it’s a very well researched and thorough analysis of medical experimentation on Black people in American history. I haven’t read it yet, but I know based on its reputation that the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot also addresses this subject; the Mütter even carries it in the gift shop.

The history of the scientific establishment violating the wishes of marginalized groups makes consent issues especially important when looking at human remains. No matter what you believe about what happens after we die, if a person hasn’t consented to their body being used in a certain way, that poses an ethical issue, especially since certain groups are disproportionately targeted. The Mütter Museum has inherited a lot of these issues, and a lot of objects with questionable or troubling provenance. One of the famous bodies in their collection, dubbed the Soap Lady, is believed to have arrived at the museum after her grave was robbed. The label accompanying the body discussed research done several decades ago that showed that what little information the museum had on her was fabricated. For example, the late 19th century donor had said she was found in a graveyard on a specific site, but that site has never had a graveyard. I got the feeling the label was intended to present this as an interesting historical mystery -- which indeed it is, but it’s also clear that at one point, someone tried to obscure the woman’s origins, and they mostly succeeded.

Museums like the Mütter benefited from the long tradition of collecting and analyzing bodies to advance theories about race. “Collecting” sounds passive, but this involved grave robbing, taking the victims of the US government’s wars against native peoples, and sometimes violently overtaking people who were trying to protect their family members’ bodies. For more on this topic, I recommend Samuel Redman’s book Bone Rooms -- I was disappointed not to see it in the Mutter Museum’s gift shop, given the relevance, in fact. Scientific racism included several trends. Some researchers were flat-out trying to prove that non-white races are not human or are sub-human. Some biologists and anthropologists looked at various indigenous peoples around the world to try to find the “missing link” between humans and apes. Scientific racism was the ideological fuel for a lot of the collecting that happened in 19th century anthropology and medical museums. These collections were used to justify theories that were never scientifically accurate or methodologically sound, but were once part of the scientific mainstream. In turn, these theories were used to justify slavery and to inspire and justify eugenics, as well as lesser forms of systemic prejudice. This trend was prominent in the 19th century, but it started earlier than that, continued in the 20th century, and there are remnants of it in some schools of thought today.

With all of that heritage weighing on the Mütter, I was hoping to see more explicit acknowledgement of the historical issues. Many of their visitors don’t know this history. The small label on the history of anatomy collections didn't feel like enough. It's also a double dose of erasure not to discuss the origins of these bodies. The people behind the specimens, their lives and cultures, are rarely identified, and whether they gave their permission to be displayed is rarely mentioned.

The museum does have a little disclaimer in the brochure about outdated language in the exhibits, and another in entry area that says the collection was largely developed by 19th century white men. I think the museum is using the disclaimers to try to own up to the limitations of their collection and to educate about these problems rather than perpetuating them. However, the exhibit text has catching up to do. One of the centerpieces of the 
Mütter is the collection of European skulls collected in the late 19th century by Joseph Hyrtl. He was interested in disproving racist phrenology, but was little better than his peers in collecting the bones of the most marginalized of his society. The labels were certainly not printed in 1874 when the collection was acquired, but they don’t comment on Hyrtl’s choices. I saw labels with words like “gypsy” (a racial slur) and “imbecile” (an ableist slur) that were considered “appropriate” in their time periods. The thing is, the modern visitor doesn’t gain useful information by seeing these slurs, unless the museum provides context. For example, the label of the skull of an “imbecile” could describe when the term was used, the various conditions that were lumped together under the word, and how society treated people deemed “imbeciles.” It could provide insight into why Hyrtl felt it was important to include this skull in the collection. All of that is missing. Really, throughout the museum that sort of information is missing -- or at least, it’s the exception rather than the rule. The social context and the power dynamics are not described. In the case of the Hyrtl collection there is a label that actually says that the museum plans to redo many of the labels in the next year, with information from the old label but modern language as well. I hope that happens in a timely fashion.

Another problem, that’s related and not, is that the museum doesn’t talk about ableism. The museum galleries themselves aren’t terribly accessible for people with wheelchairs or walkers, which might be difficult to fix, or to people with low vision, which could be addressed with better, bigger labels. But also, the history of collecting disabled bodies is filled with problems similar to the history of collecting non-White bodies, and the museum doesn’t address it. People with disabilities and deformities have long been treated as oddities by the medical profession (whether they are impaired or in pain, or healthy but “othered” because of their disability). Treating people’s bodies like they exist to be experimented on so that the scientific establishment can learn from them is a big thread in disability history. 
For a quick introduction if you’re unfamiliar, I recommend the book A Disability History of the United States, by Kim Nielsen. This kind of exploitation has often gone hand-in-hand with racial exploitation and colonialism; when people were trying to prove that different races were different physiologically, that also involved kind of creating a set of standards for the physiological ideal of a person.

It’s especially concerning to see so many divergent bodies on display without a discussion of ableism because people with disabilities are frequently stripped of agency in their medical decisions. This is another way that consent matters in display. Certainly, there are plenty of people who willingly donate their bodies, or pieces of their bodies, to museums. notable examples in the Mütter are a man with a bone growth disease who wanted his skeleton used for education, and a woman with a compulsive skin-picking habit who donated two jars of pieces of skin. There are also people who don’t care how their bodies are used, who see an amputated body part or a corpse as nothing more than dead tissue, and that’s fine. But there has been enough systemic exploitation of disabled and divergent bodies that you have to assume that some specimens were acquired without knowledge or consent. The Hunterian Museum in England famously has the skeleton of a man who was dubbed the “Irish Giant.” He wanted to be buried at sea because he didn’t want to be experimented on after his death, but his wishes weren’t respected. The 
Mütter Museum later acquired a skeleton one inch shorter, the tallest on display in America, whom they dubbed the “American Giant.” The label mentions that his grave was robbed. And yet, the grave-robbing labels are the only ones I saw that even touch on the concept of consent.

The area where I was most concerned was the exhibit Imperfecta, which displayed a number of images from medieval books illustrating abnormal births. The exhibit text said it is natural to react to react with fear and disgust when confronted with a disfigured person, in this case specifically discussing disfigured babies. Towards the end of the exhibit, there was a little bit on objectifying disabled people in freak shows, and on medicine starting to understand various causes of disfigurement in the 20th century. But unless I missed it, and I don’t think I did because the exhibit was fairly small, they didn’t discuss the fact that these illustrations of “monsters,” these depictions of divergent bodies as supernatural or demonic, perpetuated and helped to create the fear and disgust. At no point that I saw did the exhibit critique the idea of being fearful or disgusted by divergent bodies, except to say that “abnormal” is relative. Maybe the museum believed that the critique was implied, but if so, I feel that they failed at communicating their message. When the history is this important, this rough, and relates to prejudices that are alive and well, it’s a disservice to visitors not to express a clear stance that reverberates throughout an exhibit.

The museum used the word racism a couple of times in describing some historical attitudes; they didn’t express an opinion on any current attitudes. I never saw the word ableism in the museum. This seeming lack of awareness, and definite lack of attempts to make visitors more aware of the way in which this gawking at bodies is problematic and othering. It's continuation of something that people with disabilities or deformities face in their real lives. Ableism affects affects people's ability to get jobs, to be treated equally by the court system, to be allowed to raise a family, to make medical decisions. I’m not saying that any of this could be solved if museums would just be a little more sensitive in their labels. But to omit that entirely from the discussion in a place devoted to looking at people’s bodies is very troubling.

I want to be very clear here. I don’t personally have a problem with exhibiting dead people, with being morbidly (or just regularly) fascinated with death and disease, or with displaying something out of the ordinary and expecting the reaction “wow, that’s so weird!” I know some people don’t like these topics for personal, cultural, or religious reasons, and that’s completely valid. I also think it’s fine to devote a museum to these topics for those of us who do like them. What I have a problem with is the fact that generally speaking, historical practices around collecting and displaying bodies skewed towards perpetuating systemic inequalities based in racism, ableism, and colonialism. If you’re going to put a collection like this on exhibit, you can’t skirt these issues. At minimum, you need to discuss them in depth in the interpretation.

As a museum professional, I’m definitely throwing stones from my glass house, but I think it’s important to talk about how exhibits can so easily perpetuate the biases we’ve inherited as institutions and in our scholarship. I understand and respect how slow a process it is to take difficult, problematic material and create well-thought-out exhibits, especially when the existing exhibits need to be rethought, and when you only have so much space to do it in. I get the sense that someone at the 
Mütter, or a group of people, is trying to move forward, to be more sensitive, more educational, and to provide more context. I also get the sense that something, whether it’s the ideology of some people there, whether it’s not enough hours in the day, or not enough dollars in the budget to create the time, something’s holding them back. Maybe it’s inertia. Maybe it’s something else.