I learned about the Mütter Museum from Penn and Teller’s How to Play in Traffic. Penn made it sound cool in the same way that magic feeds off of the carnie, Victorian, old-school throwback tradition of entertainment that is both incredibly physical yet also oddly spiritual. I mentally filed it away as a place to check out. It only took me twenty years to cross that item off my list. I should’ve gone sooner.
The Mütter is a museum in which the chief feature is the museum itself. There’s no way to make a museum like this today. That it exists at all is kind of a miracle. It feels like it’s stepped out of one of those Steven Millhauser stories which takes place in the same 19th-century world of magic and carnival where the perspective switches halfway through and the viewer goes from observing to being part of the spectacle. While being in the galleries doesn’t go quite that far, I did find myself constantly reconciling my opposing feelings and reactions.
It’s compelling yet repulsive. I want to gawk and point while at the same time really look and learn. Most of the items on display are literally human and have the gravity of that mana* still. I know that everything used to be human and alive. That it came from a person who had a name and existed on this planet just like I do. And yet they’re now specimens in jars or displayed in wonderful Victorian cabinets with warped glass that constantly reminds you about the display. I’m invited to look even while I don’t want to out of respect. I’m compelled to look even though the grotesque nature of what’s on display makes me want to turn away.
*I briefly touch on this concept in my Totality post.
That so many of the displays feature fetuses or fetal tissue makes things sit right in that grey area too. The regular fetal displays—especially the displays of skeletons all disassembled with just the teeth arrayed in a recognizable formation—are uncanny in that I’m forced to think about what happened in order to get the sample.* But it’s all of the jars and skeletons of non-standard fetal development which really does the trick. I can’t help but see these as confirmation that it’s not a baby until it’s a baby. Yet at the same time I look at them and marvel that they were at some level alive.
*While beautiful in their own right these don’t have the beauty of Lennart Nilsson’s photos nor do they allow you to pretend that the subjects are still alive.
The surprising, and disturbing, thing was finding myself feeling secure in the fact that the non-standard fetuses didn’t survive. As different as they are, they’re still human and I didn’t expect myself to be so relieved by realizing how incapable of living they were.
It’s a rare thing to be really forced to think about what makes someone human but that’s the territory the Mütter lives in. So many of the exhibits operate right there on that level. Whether it’s forcing you to think about monstrous births or the abstraction of when tissue samples become too personal. Or maybe it’s just the shelves and shelves of small multiples—skulls and other bones—which at first glance appear to be an impersonal collection but quickly becomes a set of items to compare and notice differences. Each sample has its own personality.
Carnivals and reliquaries
There are also a number of displays which are about specific people. Many of these tend toward the carnie side of things whether it’s pairing the huge and tiny skeletons* or just putting the gigantic colon** on display. We even have the death cast and conjoined livers of Chang and Eng to make that carnival aspect as obvious as possible.
*I appreciate that we get life stories about the two people whose skeletons are displayed.
**It’s also nice that we have his story. I deeply appreciate using “bucket” as the official unit of volume for feces.
We have a long history of calling these outliers “freaks,” specifically “carnival freaks,” and while that sense is still present in the museum—it’s impossible not to gawk—there’s a lot more going on. The Mütter shows a wider range of human possibilities and so rather than being something abnormal or freaky my takeaway is that I should give the entire spectrum of humanity more credit.
The museum itself is wrestling with a certain amount of this as well. The Soap Lady is one of their prize attractions (Specimens? Displays? Again it seems odd to talk about people this way) yet only recently has the museum started tackling and dismantling the myths which surround her. Much of what the museum thought it knew has turned out to be false—in very much the same way that a carnival story is usually a false history—and it’s now trying to learn the real stories behind her history
The weirdest part about learning the details about the people whose bodies are on display though is how fine the line is between the carnival shows and reliquaries. When what makes the people distinct is something physical then it’s hard not to look at the samples with the carnival show mindset. However when the person (or people) involved is legitimately famous, the reliquary side comes into play as well.
Chang and Eng straddle this line. Einstein on the other hand is solidly into reliquary territory even though it’s only his most-important, distinguishing organ which is on display. Yes his brain is there so we can possibly learn from it. But it’s also there because of who he was and how much mystery there is still in intelligence.
While most of the museum is about things that occur naturally, there are also some exhibits about what humans do to each other or themselves. These make a very interesting comparison with the diverse nature of how people can take forms which are beyond our dreams/nightmares.
The room of Civil War injuries is particularly gruesome and relevant today in how it details the artificial nature of death through violence—specifically gunshots and how destructive they were. Still are. We don’t see these kinds of things today. The photos get cropped or blurred if they’re even published at all. There’s just something gut wrenching in seeing the physical evidence of how bones are just shattered by bullets.
With the way that mechanized death led to embalming and a different understanding of death itself I can’t help but wonder if we need a similar shock today. We’ve gone too long just accepting that guns are an unescapable part of this society.
On a lighter note, there’s also the Chevalier Jackson Collection. Note, this is only lighter in a place like The Mütter. Good lord. I don’t have too much to say about it except that looking through the drawers and drawers of things that people have swallowed or inhaled gave me the willies.
There was also one special exhibition of items not in The Mütter’s collection. It was very cool. Lisa Nilsson’s paper sculptures are amazing both in their craft and in what they show. One of my basic art assignments was to cut a piece of fruit or vegetable in half and then draw a detailed rendering of what I found. The point was to truly examine the inside of the item, see it, learn about it, and finally communicate that understanding through art.
Nilsson is doing that but using rolled strips of paper to communicate what the human body looks like in cross section. It’s a masterclass of craft but it also is a fabulous experiment in showing the beauty that comes from abstracting these things slightly. I know and recognize the body parts. But I’m invited to look closely and can appreciate what I’m seeing in a way that I couldn’t let myself do in the rest of the museum.
I also love the sense of humor in a lot of these where some aspects are rendered in cross section while others—like collars or hair or, my favorite, a halo—are not. There’s a willingness to push these into their own fantasy which both speaks to the renaissance origins of quilling and directly contradicts it in how it puts all objects on the same two-dimensional plane.