Doctor's Orders

Decapitated heads, jars filled with tumors, and lots of skeletons -- not Halloween but the Mütter Museum

The typical museum doesn't come with a warning -- like, say, "Don't visit on a full stomach" -- but there's nothing typical about the Mütter Museum. Home to a gut-churning assortment of anatomical and pathological materials, the institution is affiliated with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and features the exceptional collection of its namesake, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a 19th-century professor of surgery. Among its treasures are such medical oddities as the "Soap Lady," the preserved corpse of a woman whose fatty tissues decomposed into a soaplike substance; a 27-foot-long human colon; the connected livers of the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker; Grover Cleveland's cancerous tumor; and Chief Justice John Marshall's bladder stones. Formerly the haunt of doctors and goths, the Mütter, open to the public since 1863, has become a popular tourist attraction thanks to the efforts of its director, Gretchen Worden. You may recognize Worden from her many appearances on Late Night With David Letterman or as one of the subjects of Errol Morris' documentary film series First Person. Presiding over her macabre warehouse with enthusiasm, Worden is at home with eerily lifelike wax models of decapitated heads and arms with horns growing from them, luminescent jars filled with floating organs and tumors, and skeletons of every shape and size.

Now, folks with hardy constitutions don't have to make a trip to the East Coast to see such curiosities: Worden's full-color coffee-table book, Mütter Museum, published by Blast Books, is the next best thing. Culled from seven years of the museum's controversial fine-art calendar plus arresting historical photos from its archives, the monograph includes the work of such renowned photographers as Steven Katzman, Rosamond Purcell, and William Wegman. Particularly striking are Katzman's snapshot of a skull showing the nerves and arteries along with dried dahlias and Wegman's portrait of his Weimaraner Chip with a model of a typhus-ridden foot and ankle. The book makes a strong argument that what's in this museum is truly art. The meticulously prepared dried dissections and papier-mâché models reveal exquisite handiwork. And beyond the shock value and novelty of the subject lies an important message: We're all at the mercy of Mother Nature's whims.

The Mütter Museum's treasures will intrigue you,  but 
they're not for the squeamish.
Steven Katzman
The Mütter Museum's treasures will intrigue you, but they're not for the squeamish.

The human body, in all its glory, has a place in most every art museum. But the photographers and visitors who return to the Mütter aren't interested in superficial appearances; they find the deeper beauty that goes hand in hand with the apparent gore. "In most museums you go to look at objects. In the Mütter Museum, sometimes the objects seem to be looking at you," writes Worden in the book's preface. "And, sometimes, the objects seem to be you."

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