Somewhere between the liver shared by history's most famous set of conjoined twins and the wall of eye abnormalities, I learned that not all museums are created equal. I was in my late teens when I first visited the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and had already developed a pretty opinion of museums as being stuffy and dull. The museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, however, showed me how wrong I was. Ever since that visit, it has remained one of my favorite venues for science, history, and, well, weirdness. I revisited the museum last fall and marveled once again at the collection that amazes, flabbergasts, and often disgusts many visitors. Part science museum, part history museum, with a dash of carnival slideshow thrown in, the Mütter Museum is far from your average place of learning. That's part of it's charm, though. Beyond that, it's also a tribute to how much doctors and scientists have learned about the human body over the centuries.
While some of the human remains on display look like freak show attractions (and many of the specimens played that role when they were alive), the museum goes to great lengths to handle the subject matter tastefully, modestly, and scientifically. The explanations provided go far beyond your average science textbooks, and an optional audio tour offers a wealth of information that helps make the overwhelming collection seem much more manageable.
Many of the exhibits offer a glimpse inside (literally) the types of conditions that we often see in our day-to-day lives or on TLC reality shows. Skeletons of a little person and a man who suffered from gigantism are juxtaposed. That skeleton – which is nine feet tall – is the largest on display in North America. A cast of famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker allows visitors to see a rare condition and the origin of the term "Siamese twins." In fact, the autopsy on the Bunker brothers' body (bodies?) was conducted at the museum.
With all of the skulls, organs in jars, and horns growing out of human foreheads (not to much the nine-foot-long human colon) on display, it's easy to dismiss the museum as more entertainment than place of learning. However, it's only as macabre or silly as you allow it to be. At its essence, it's truly a museum of human science and a place where misunderstandings can be replaced by facts. The absence of permitted photography actually helps foster an environment more conducive to appreciating the museum for what it truly is, rather than turning it into a hall of oddities.
That said, there is room for humor at the Mütter Museum. The gift shop sells conjoined twin cookie cutters. You can also "adopt a skull" by donating to the museum to help preserve their collection of human remains.
Whether you're tired of the usual art museum routine or just looking for an attraction that is truly unique to Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum is worth a visit. Unless, of course, you have a very weak stomach.
The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm. It is located at 19 S. 22nd St. in Philadelphia.