Perhaps I’m revealing a bit too much about myself, but I have a lifelong fascination with the weird, the odd and the taboo. Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, maybe it’s the fact that I grew up reading books about sideshow people (Jo Jo the Dog Boy, anyone?) or maybe it’s just my scientist’s soul, curious about everything. Either way, the Mütter Museum was one of those places that’s been on my bucket list for a looooong time and I was thrilled to finally make my pilgrimage there when I was in Philadelphia. The Mütter was founded in 1858, a part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, with the goal to “advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery”. The collection contains everything from human specimens to models to photographs and books. At the Mütter you can find a skeleton of a foot, a wax model of a foot, a pickled foot and surgical implements for the treatment of feet and legs…all under the same roof!
My favorite part of the Mütter is probably the atmosphere of the place – this is no circus sideshow, but a hushed and reverent cabinet of curiosities. It looks very similar to other 19th century museums of its day, with wooden cabinets with brass handles and glass panels that are a little bit distorted and wavy. You have to nearly press your nose up against the glass to read the labels. The downstairs floor is all old school, but the top floor is split between the older exhibit design and a couple of newer exhibits.
I found that there were a handful of items in the collection that were good examples of how photographs and pictures sometimes don’t really convey an idea as good as the real thing. One of these was a case with two skeletons, side-by side – one was a modern woman, the other was a woman who had worn a tight corset all her life. The difference between their rib cages was astonishing – there was very little room for the corseted woman’s ribs to expand, such that all the those fainting Victorian ladies suddenly make sense.
Another one of these exhibits was a plaster life-cast of Cheng and Eng, the original “Siamese twins”. The plaster cast captured every wrinkle in their faces, and at life-size I could really imagine what it would have been like to meet them and shake their hands. Their conjoined liver rests in a huge glass jar beneath the cast.
And then there were the human-skin books, which I didn’t realize were part of the museum’s collection until I was staring at them. My first thought was that they were so small – most were octavo size quarter-style bindings and only one was a full leather binding. The next thing I noticed is that the pores were really prominent, like on the back of my hand. There was even one book that had been made with tattooed skin, but sadly the ink had faded over time and you wouldn’t know it except for the label.
Most of these anthropodermic bindings (and one wallet) were owned by surgeons, and several had notations that mentioned the source of the leather, giving a short bio and the name of the person and how they died. The ethics of such bindings were understandably much different than how we understand them today – I do not think that most of the suppliers of the leather bequeathed themselves to their surgeons before they went under the knife. However, I think it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider the ethics and issues surrounding these bindings, and those that have been brought up by the recent rash of “BodyWorlds” exhibitions of plastinated bodies. I recently saw such an exhibition at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, and wasn’t very impressed. For a so-called educational display of human anatomy, there was very little useful information presented beyond that which might be news to a 3rd grader. I couldn’t help but keep noticing small details of the bodies, such as how all of them had obviously been lacking in decent dental hygiene during their lifetime. These were not people who had had a comfortable life, it seemed. And I was disturbed by their anonymity – who were these people? Why did they die and where did they live? When their plastinated bodies finally disintegrated, what would happen to them? Would they be buried or merely swept away into the trash and replaced with yet another body fresh from the preparation factory?
In contrast, I hardly found the human-skin bindings to be unsettling, particularly those with the annotations about the source of the leather. The books seemed more respectful to the deceased, to name them in this object created with their flesh. These were not objects that would have originally been on display as some kind of garish “edutainment”, but prestige objects to be handled with care by their private owners. They were not mass-produced in a factory.
Perhaps it is unsettling to us, who live in a time that promises us average life expectancies of 70+ years, to see such a tangible reminder of our own mortality. We want to bury death and fight it and remove any sign of aging from our faces. We do not turn the bones of our dead. We do not display or encourage the making of post-mortem photographs. To contemplate holding in our hands something like a book bound in the skin of the dead seems anathema to our modern sensibilities, but I have to wonder if we shouldn’t consider what is lost when that becomes taboo. What does it say about us, as a society, when we speak of anthropodermic bibliopegy in hushed and secretive voices, but herald the opening of a BodyWorlds exhibit on the front page of the newspaper?
Anyway, I’ve let myself ramble on yet again. Long story short, I loved the Mütter Museum and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of medicine or natural history collections. Also, they have a GREAT gift shop – I came home with a conjoined gingerbreadman cookie cutter and some lavender soap that looks like the soap lady.